Half way

The weather is still pretty rough, and we have been told to expect high winds, and therefore rough seas, for the next 24 or 36 hours. Most disappointingly, my trip driving a snowmobile through the night has been cancelled because we will not be able to dock at the small port where we were due to start. It seems that our (passive) husky-drawn sledge ride tomorrow will be OK, but not my (active) snowmobile drive. I am disappointed, but on the positive side the refund will pay for most of our (expensive!) drinks on the voyage. My excitement is thus transferred to a dip in the Barents sea, in a wooden enclosure lowered behind the boat. Only four passengers have volunteered for this ordeal, and one of them is our dinner-table companion, so we might get some vicarious thrill out of watching him. Meanwhile we have to try to sleep in the rolling and pitching ship.

…. successfully as it happens: the night was quieter than expected. We are just about to land at Kirkenes, the final port, and take our husky-sledge ride. The temperature is only -1C, but I have donned my long johns anyway. Having brought them all this way I’m going to use them!

I may not have revealed earlier that I have not shaved since we set out. In all my lives as student, angry young man, pathetic middle-aged man and elegant silvery fox I have never grown a beard. I thought it might be fun to try – away from the most viciously mocking eyes – and it should help with insulation against the cold. Gwen will take a picture before we return because I *will* shave it off!

The husky trip was a great success. For the first time we really felt that we were in the Arctic. It was not very cold (about -2C) but with plenty of fresh snow. We sat behind eight (Alaskan) huskies and were driven through woods and across a frozen fjord. Absolutely delightful. Because of the fresh snow the sledges could not go very fast, so we were slightly late back to the boat (a couple of minutes after the scheduled departure time). We hurried up the gangplank, which was immediately raised behind us and the boat set off. We are now on our way back!

The far north

Last night we had our first real “weather”, a snow storm so thick we could barely see the sea from our deck, followed by high winds and pitching sufficient to make me wonder during the night whether I might be rolled out of bed. Fortunately neither of us is experiencing any sea sickness, although when walking round the ship there is now vigorous competition for the handrails! Today we pass through Hammersfest, the world’s most northerly town (although I’ m not sure how this is defined – there are certainly more northerly settlements) and then take a tour to the North Cape (allegedly the northermost point of Europe).

At our last tiny port we saw, for the first time, large numbers of seabirds. Up to now birds have only appeared occasionally in very small numbers. Someone claimed to have seen a skua, but we have forgotten to bring our book of polar birds, so remain in ignorance. We could of course look it up on the internet but by the time we had downloaded the page, the bird would probably have migrated to Antarctica! Each posting of this blog is composed in Pages, and then I fight for about half an hour to get it uploaded. I hope somebody is reading it.

We have just returned from a dramatic trip to North Cape from Honningsvag (clearly not a “town” cf Hammerfest above). Our coach had to join a convoy led by a snowplough,so bad was the blizzard. Yesterday’s trip had to be canceled so we were lucky to get through. We can now say that we have been to the northern point of Europe, and it was windy and cold enough to be true. Now we sail around the top of Norway.

Tromso first time

This is what the aurora is/are supposed to look like, but we have seen nothing like this yet!

image

Sleet is forecast for Tromso this afternoon. The morning passed uneventfully, broken only by my being measured for my protective gear (and helmet) for the snowmobile ride on day 8. We breakfasted with an Austrian couple who were doing one day and night on the ship as part of a coach/boat/air tour of Norway.  This accounts for the groups of people who have boarded and left the ship at apparently isolated ports.

We walked around Tromso this afternoon. The weather chose to thaw by a couple of degrees so we waded through slush and slithered on underlying ice, while discarding the hats and gloves we had so carefully put on. We must have hit the town at rush hour because there was dense traffic and even (horror of horrors in nice Norway) an irate car horn. And we saw several cars sliding in the slush.

The highlight of our visit was the Polar Museum. Tromso is the home town of Amundsen and we learned a lot about seal and walrus hunting, as well as exploration. We had not known that a Norwegian airship overflew the North pole before it became routine for aircraft. Nor had we realised that well-to-do Tromsoans kept polar bear cubs as pets and walked them about town on a lead. If I visited Tromso again I would want to see the Polaria exhibit about Arctic wildlife and the Arctic Cathedral (across the bridge and too far to walk to in the slush).

The weather is very changeable. It has been cloudy all day and while in Tromso we experienced light snow and also sleet. No northern lights tonight I fear.

Day 5 and still going north

Our final port of call last night was Svolvaer, a pretty little town where we visited an art gallery dedicated to Dagfinn Bakke, many of whose paintings are displayed on the ship’s walls, and an exhibition of ice sculpture. This was nothing on the scale of say Harbin in China, but quite fun. Our big furry hats are now daily wear and definitely earning their keep.

The day ended with a pair of events both eery and naff. We were enticed out on to the top deck at 11pm for “traditional fishcakes”. In reality these were small rubbery, awfully white drop scones lightly flavoured with fish. We were then directed to the very bow of the ship while it edged slowly into the mouth of the “famous trollfjord”. Although it was by this time almost midnight we were assured that by the light of the moon we would be able to see into this long (2.5km) narrow (60m) fjord, up which the ship was only allowed in summer (and it is definitely not summer at present). As it turned out the sky was cloudy and the moon thus rather weak, so we peered coldly into black water which was possibly the opening to the fjord, and then went to bed!

It was actually quite atmospheric being outside at night with the boat moving very slowly and low moonlight just enabling us to see the surrounding partly snow-clad mountains (and we had filled our insulated coffee mugs with whisky!)

At breakfast this morning we shared a table with an Austrian couple who were doing a tour by bus, boat and air, but they had not yet seen the lights at all. From the look of the clouds outside this morning I don’t think we will be either, yet a while.

More day 4 – and it’s only 3pm

The stop at Ornes this morning was a classic: the most beautiful fjord so far, with the sun rising over the mountains and clear blue skies. I stood in the bows as our hooter sounded, and echoed for at least ten seconds from hill to hill. We then docked to collect a single passenger who was standing on the dock with his wheely case. One car drove off and one drove on and then we upped ramps and left. A very slick operation as a 1000-passenger 8-deck ship stopped to collect one person!
It is now extremely cold. All water except the sea is frozen so we see frozen waterfalls at every turn. We have just avoided having ice cubes put down our backs at the “crossing the Arctic Circle” ceremony (3 hours late – we crossed at 7.23 this morning).

Later we arrived at Bodo for a two-hour stay. The town itself (47,000 inhabitants) is rather plain but from the size of the harbour, and the two well-stocked marinas, it is clearly a fun place for Norwegians. It was very cold under blue skies, so we trialled our big boots, cleats, furry hats and neckgaiters – all successfully. Only long johns in reserve now! One pleasant impression of the town was the politeness of the drivers. We only had to approach a pedestrian crossing (barely visible to us under the ice) for cars and even taxis to stop immediately.

While walking along a cleared bit of pavement I suddenly noticed a small steel cover embossed with ULEFOS – the foundry in southern Norway where I worked as a student more than 50 years ago. Nostalgia strikes again.

Day 4 starts

Day 4: We crossed the Arctic Circle this morning, and last night we saw the lights for the first time. It was not a brilliant show, but all the features were visible; changing shapes, vertical pillars of (not very green) light etc – but none of my photos came out at all! Dawn was splendid, with orange and pale blue colours changing behind the mountains every minute, and the moon (it’s full today) glowing surprisingly yellow low on the horizon.

Temperatures last night were low enough to justify our furriest hats while watching the lights, but during the day they hover around zero and it is possible to pop out briefly on deck without a coat. In a few minutes we are going to don some outerwear and watch the ship do one of its in-and-out manoeuvres – dock, unload, load and leave in 15 minutes! Most of the small ports up here get this service two or three times a day as different ships drop by.

To Trondheim

imageTypical view from our cabin window, showing housing near the water’s edge with rocky hills behind.  We have been pleased with the length if the daylight period. At this latitude it is about 9 to 5, which is a lot better than I expected. It might shorten as we go north, although as the days pass they should get longer anyway. Loading this image exposed the weakness of the on-board wifi. Everything is so slow, but I suppose that I should be grateful that we have wifi at all, and that it reaches to our cabin.  No chance of the lights tonight, since we have extensive cloud cover in front of us, so a chance to catch up on the sleep we missed yesterday. We should arive in Trondheim at 6am, but the stay is 6 hours so we have no intention of getting up early or missing breakfast. At the moment we are in open sea and the ship is moving a bit, so Gwen’s main focus is on retaining dinner (successfully, as it turns out).

We docked in Trondheim this morning, without waking us. It inspires awe that the crew can dock a boat of this size in complete silence, and without any detectable bump as we moor – I couldn’t do that with our narrowboat!

Day 3 starts with a stroll through Trondheim, although both of the top sights are inaccessible; the cathedral is closed for repairs and the art gallery does not open until 12, as the ship departs! And at the moment it is gently snowing. We’ll what it’s like after breakfast.

After breakfast it was snowing lightly so we took a decent walk through Trondheim, an attractive city of 170,000 with a high percentage of electric cars (distinguishable by a registration plate starting EL) but surprisingly few charging points.

Contrary to prior rumour the Nidaros Cathedral was open and splendid, especially the organs. It reminded us in its spaciousness of Guildford, but about 900 years older.  Back to the boat for lunch, and a goodly spell at sea, including – later today – some more open water at dinner time!

While out we succeeded in buying soap and shampoo ( to replace the awful dispenser stuff provided in our cabin) but we lost one of Gwen’s strap-on cleats. They were very useful, so will have to be replaced (about the cost of a glass of wine!).

There has been so much to see and do that I have not yet finished one book, although I probably will finish H is for Hawk this afternoon.