The freight escape: Simon Calder left for his skiing holiday as an airline passenger but came home as cargo

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The Independent Travel

The luckiest traveller in Europe in the past nine days? Andrew Gardner, an engineer from Milton Keynes. On Thursday morning, 15 April, he flew from Stansted to Oslo. About 10 minutes after he landed, the air-traffic control shutters came down over northern Europe, and remained closed for the next six days. Mr Gardner arrived blissfully unaware that he had dodged the most catastrophic shutdown in aviation history. He was booked to return home the same day, but the closure of airports across Europe because of fears of volcanic ash affected him not one jot. His mission was to pick up the car he had left in Oslo after a working assignment. With ferries no longer running between Norway and Britain, he had booked a passage aboard a container ship that, besides transporting steel, beer and electronic components, also carries private cars.

I met Mr Gardner aboard the Tor Ficaria after a rather different travel experience. Nine days ago, you did not need a strong grasp of Norwegian to work out from the ski-resort newsstand that not all was well in the turbulent world of aviation. "Vulkan Aske fra Island STOPPED FLY-NORGE" yelled one tabloid front page headline, with a background of a billowing plume of Iceland's finest ash.

Ten minutes earlier, pine, not ash, had been uppermost in my mind. The lower pistes of Norway's biggest winter-sports resort, Trysil, swerve through tall, handsome trees. A late-season snowstorm swept across the mountain on that Thursday morning, making the ski area look like Narnia. The constant tussle between gravity, muscle, friction and timing that skiing involves is much more rewarding if you feel you are drifting through a Christmas card.

Air travel, like winter sports, comprises a tangle of possibilities and probabilities. I stopped assessing the risk of an ill-judged turn on the red runs through a Norwegian wood, and started assessing the chances of getting back to Britain in the implausible event that the skies of northern Europe should be closed down. And I switched the focus of contemplation from the infinite wilderness of Scandinavia to the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992.

What this body of law lacks in page-turning compulsion, it compensates for with priceless reassurance when disruption arises. When I booked my holiday, I wanted to shift the risk. Buying a package means that, from the moment I checked in at Heathrow to the moment I returned home, someone would be watching over me. In return for your business, the tour operator undertakes to deliver the promised holiday – and takes on a raft of responsibilities for your well-being.

"Raft" would prove an appropriate word as the options unfolded. When I hear the phrase "airline chaos", I usually reach for the wisdom of the Man in Seat 61. Mark Smith, international rail travel guru, runs a splendid website that has enjoyed an unprecedented spike in hits this week as travellers sought his expertise in finding a way home. But the rail options were unappetising: a three-hour bus ride to Oslo followed by an eight-hour trip via Gothenburg to Copenhagen, then a 13-hour overnight journey to Cologne, a two-hour wait at dawn beside the Rhine, a connection to Brussels and then the rapidly filling Eurostar to London. Expensive, complicated and uncertain: happily, it was not exactly my problem.

Had I put together my own skiing holiday online, and booked on the excellent low-cost airline Norwegian (a non-EU airline, and therefore with no statutory care obligation), I would have been on my own. As it was, my contract was with Ski Norway to deliver the holiday as booked – or put things right. Even before I could say "Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992", the tour operator was on the case. It helped that Ski Norway is a small, specialist holiday company, and furthermore that the founder, Ben Nyberg, was working in the resort. Each of his clients was offered a range of options. I took up his recommendation to grab one of the last three berths on a Thursday night sailing of a container ship from a port near Oslo to Immingham Docks near Grimsby.

In return for chronological certainty about returning to the UK, I was to surrender, or so I imagined, to the gloomy twilight world of international commerce. Having travelled to Norway as a passenger, I was about to come back as freight.

Cargo vessels routinely offer a dozen places for passengers. The rationale is that, on routes where no ferry alternative exists, there will always be some demand from flight-phobic travellers or those with private cars (which can easily be squeezed in). Why 12 people? Because any more than that and the cargo companies could be considered passenger-carrying operations, which requires massively complex bureaucracy.

Travel by container ship takes you to places, and through procedures, that are unfamiliar to most travellers. Mr Nyberg went possibly one step beyond his legal responsibility and personally drove me to Brevik, south-west of Oslo. At the port barrier, my ticket – booked by phone – had already been faxed through.

I bade farewell to the tour operator, who drove back to the ski resort through the night – only to discover one of his delayed passengers had developed appendicitis, another test of his organisational skills.

Then the opposite of what happens at airports happened.

You know how, at the security check, they insist that you remove your jacket? Well, at Brevik at midnight they insisted that I put on a jacket – a high-visibility affair – for the walk across to the ship. The reason soon became clear, as tractor units shot around the quayside at astonishing speed, in a frenzy of loading in the few hours in which the Tor Ficaria was docked.

I walked up the ramp into the ship's gaping hold, and stepped into another universe. This massive metal crate felt like a villain's lair in a James Bond film. It was littered with vast metal boxes, trucks the size of trains, lights that burnt down with piercing clarity – all looked after by a pleasant chap in a matching high-visibility jacket. He had been expecting me, and led me across the steel floor, through a steel door, up some steel stairs ... and into a cabin fit for a cruise ship. A single bed, a shower and a sofa (possibly superfluous, as I was not expecting visitors) were waiting.

My first reaction was to wonder what the catch was: £170 would barely buy you a hotel room for two nights in Norway, let alone one which takes you 600 miles across the North Sea.

"Help yourself to food in the drivers' lounge," he recommended. So I did.

Low expectations are always wise in travel, but my presumption about life aboard a 38,000-ton freighter proved as wide of the mark as, say, a risk-assessment of the dangers of volcanic ash. I had anticipated something that was scruffy, utilitarian and threadbare, but in fact the only things on board that deserved that description were my clothes. The lounge comprised a dining area, with just four round tables and 12 chairs; and a carpeted living room ("Take your shoes off, please") with armchairs, a smokers' corner and a massive plasma screen.

Clearly the on-board steward recognised the cruise-ship mantra that a well-fed passenger is a happy passenger. A spread of cold cuts, bread and fruit was on offer at all times during the voyage, together with unlimited tea, coffee and juice. You have to pay for alcholic drinks, but the only onerous aspect of this transaction was that the ship's shop opened only once during the voyage, at 12.45pm. Anyone burdened with sterling should make the deadline: a can of Tuborg lager cost the equivalent of 50p, but no spirits are sold on board.

While I slept, the vessel slipped off into the night, and into Oslo Fjord. I awoke to find the coast of Norway retreating into the distance, and a selection of my fellow passengers on deck enjoying the spring sunshine. Most were Scandinavians, including a pair of brothers off to pick up a motorbike. Only one was, like me, a refugee from the airline crisis: Simon Dwyer, a logistics consultant.

Everyone, with the exception of Mr Dwyer himself, thought his travel story comical. He had rented a car from his home town of Grimsby and driven to Heathrow. When his return flight was cancelled, he booked a berth on a ship that would deposit him a mere 10 miles from home. The only problem: his rental car was 200 miles away, racking up airport car-park charges. (In the Dunkirk spirit that has prevailed this week, I dropped the keys off at the Europcar desk at Heathrow when I returned to London.)

Once the coast retreated, taking mobile phone reception with it, I imagined that the communication-hungry traveller might mutate into an Edvard Munch portrait. It was a scream, but in a good way. Life immediately took on a more appealing sheen. We chatted, watched DVDs and BBC World, strode around on deck and (at least the Swedish segment) smoked for Scandinavia. Could we visit the bridge? Of course. The officer on duty allowed us to marvel at the view from 120 feet above sea level, and reminded us that the depth of the North Sea was no greater. No one thanked the character who calculated that, if we turned over, the bridge would be scraping the sea floor.

And we ate. As with inflight meals in economy class on airlines, eating times are closely prescribed: breakfast is at 7.30am, lunch at 11.30am and dinner at 5pm, a little earlier than I am used to. Heaven help any Spanish lorry driver who finds himself aboard.

The highlight of the trip was not the stately, sunny glide across calm seas beneath a vast sky unscathed by jet-contrails, nor the convivial male bonding that took place over Tuborg and a screening of The Bourne Ultimatum. It was the trip to the engine room. All of us donned ear-plugs and explored the labyrinth of locomotion below decks: a thumping, throbbing assembly of high-tech and brute force. We stayed an hour, amazed by the opportunity to wander around an internal combustion engine in the safe hands of the chief engineer.

"Welcome to Immingham" – actually, there was no such sign. Hitherto, I had not realised that there was anywhere beyond Grimsby. How to make my escape? With the luckiest man in Europe, of course. Andrew Gardner kindly offered me a lift in a smart Audi. But after spending months in storage in a Norwegian garage (the car, not him), the battery was flat. A quick jump-start from the fitter and we were off. By 5.30am, I was at Doncaster station, which has never looked lovelier. But this week, all our travel perceptions have been re-calibrated.

Travel essentials: Container yourself

* DFDS Tor Line (01469 575231; dfdstorline.com ) sells passenger space on all its container ships. A one-way ticket from Immingham in Lincolnshire to Brevik in Norway costs £170, including a single cabin and three meals a day. The company also sails from Immingham to Esbjerg in Denmark, Cuxhaven in Germany and Gothenburg in Sweden (also served from Tilbury in Essex).

The company says: "It is important to note that our ships are working freight ships with limited cabin capacity. Priority in some cases must be given to freight drivers and their vehicles. Be sure to phone the local freight booking department to confirm departure times and check-in deadlines."

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