I was up much earlier than I would have liked to on Saturday, especially after being up at 5.20am on Friday. I packed, I declined to go and pick up some breakfast from the breakfast room (yes, open it ten minutes early specially for me, so I can look at pickled herring and black bread and decline it…) and then went down to the harbour. It was very easy to find the MS Nordlys – indeed, I could see it from my window, but finding the way to Board was harder, since she was parked behind a warehouse. I followed a taxi and that turned out to be right. Then I walked up the gangplank, since there was nothing stopping me and that turned out to be right also. There was a gleaming reception desk and I presented my piece of paper and was given in return a plastic boarding card with my name, booking number, start point and destination. Then I was pointed at the luggage room and I packed anything important or valuable and went off to explore.
I’d found the outside decks, the one on deck five that runs around the entire ship, the little sundeck on the back of deck six and then big helicopter pad on deck seven and I began to think about finding something to eat or at least to drink, since I’d finished my hard-won bottles of Ribena by now. In the search, I discovered the restaurant, discovered that it served breakfast 7.00 – 10.00 and decided to test it. You just scan your boarding card as you go in and mine flashed green and didn’t object, so I took that to mean I was allowed breakfast. I had nice crusty rolls with butter and pineapple juice – in typical hotel-fashion, the glasses were tiny so I had a second glass and also a mug of apple juice and then I borrowed a couple more rolls for later on.
We set sail while I was still eating but I got onto the deck in time to see Harstad fading into the distance. On our port side we had gleaming white Mountains, on the left an orange and gold sunrise silhouetting black jagged mountains.
I couldn’t have had a more beautiful day for the boat trip. The sky was absolutely clear, the sea was like glass and the sun slowly rose for the first couple of hours, turning the sky all sorts of interesting colours. The moon, a colossal glowing orange circle, gradually set on our port side and Mountains and fjords appeared on all sides – the Hurtigruten makes its way up Norway’s west coast but by the time it reaches the Lofoten and the Vesterålen, it’s making its way through islands and jagged bits and it’s never on the open sea, really, for the rest of the Journey all the way to the Russian border.
It did get colder somewhere around our first stop, at Finnsnes, at around eleven o’clock. I’d fetched my hat from the luggage room about ten minutes out of Harstad and at Finnsnes I fetched my gloves – very handy, the luggage room being always open. I’d noticed at reception they were selling Hurtigruten lanyards, really for hanging your boarding card on if you were travelling more than the six hours I was – the full journey, Bergen to Kirkenes to Bergen is a little over eleven days – but I found it much handier to hang my camera on than having to keep getting it out of my pocket.
I spent a little while every now and then in the Orion lounge at the front, to warm up or to eat my rolls and cheese or just to look at all the People sitting in their chairs in front of the big panoramic windows. Good place to see the view, maybe, but not as good as feeling the wind in your hat – and such a problem my long-tailed hat was! There’s a strong breeze around every outer door, you haul them back and then throw yourself in and the door slams behind you and that hat – the tail streams out behind me and it got caught in just about every door I tried to get through.
As we approached Tromsø, maybe half an hour out, maybe an hour, there was a lecture on the deck seven sundeck, a nice man from the expedition team, whose name I can’t remember, who told us all about the narrow sound we would pass through and about the island in the middle. You can buy it if you want, for twelve million. He didn’t specify twelve million what but it was probably kroner (£1.2m) and may or may not include a few musk oxen. There were once thirty-odd of them there but no one’s sure if any are left now. The island belongs to Tromsø university at the moment.
Under the water is a sunken ship that broached in the fast tidal current in that narrow passageway. The Freya, coming at it, made no effort not to ram it and the dying ship cracked in half, sank, and then exploded. It’s still down there. Those tidal currents are so powerful that they considered generating power with it but since that’s a big expensive project, it never got off the ground. The nice man doing the talk thought it was still plausible, though, since it’s deep enough there that the turbines wouldn’t disturb either shipping or fish.
Once we were past all that, Tromsø itself came into view, or at least the Arctic Cathedral did. It’s very distinctive and visible quite a long way away, long before I could make out anything else, even the famous bridge which is right next to it. It’s nearly three-quarters of a mile long, 38 metres high – which is frighteningly high if you cross it on foot – and joins the city centre to the Mainland, since Tromsø itself is actually on a triangular island, 10km long by about 3-4km wide.
I’d been looking forward to going under the bridge – indeed, I’d spent some time trying to work out which way we’d go under it. When I was at the Arctic Cathedral at midnight in May 2011, I’d seen a Hurtigruten go under, cathedral on the left, town on the right and yet by my calculations, it should be the other way round – well, that boat had been southbound and we were northbound and anyway, the bridge is north of the dock. As I had at Finnsnes, I enjoyed watching the docking procedure – a huge yellow rope is tied to a small green rope with a rubber ball on the end, that ball is thrown on the dock where someone grabs it (they missed terribly at Finnsnes on the first attempt) and pulls in both ropes to tie the big ship up before throwing the ball and the green rope back on Board.
It was only mid-afternoon and I’d only briefly seen the sun creep above the horizon and already the daylight was fading. I took photos of the ship and then made my way into town. This wasn’t easy – Tromsø’s streets are icy in places. Not everywhere, there are plenty of clear patches but enough to make getting around difficult and I didn’t remember my way around all that well and got a little bit lost.
My hotel, up a very difficult bit of hill, was… well, there was nothing wrong with it. But there was also not much right with it. It was all decorated in black and white and concrete with graffiti-lettering on the doors and directions, there was nothing in the way of storage in the room and although I found the bed very nice and big, they consider these beds doubles as well as singles.
It had already been a long day and I’d had two early mornings in a row so I had a little nap before going back down to the harbour to be picked up for the Northern Lights tour. I’d paused at a supermarket on the way for food and drink and I arrived at the quay just in time to see Nordlys depart.
The Northern Lights trip was over on Kvaløya, Whale Island, Norway’s fifth largest island. We drove through the tunnels on Tromsø island, past two of the five roundabouts, across the bridge – not the big famous bridge but a pretty similar-looking one on the opposite side of the island – past the airport and the famous Airport Art (a multi-million kroner sculpture that looks like nothing more or less than an incredibly expensive version of the traditional Fish drying rack that you see all over the country. The locals are not particularly impressed), onto Whale Island and then up to the basecamp, a set of wooden lavvus, the traditional Sami dwelling, only these aren’t tents.
The Lights were already out, not particularly impressive or indeed particularly obvious to the naked eye. We were lent tripods, Christina helped people work out their settings (I already knew where mine were) and we took photos of the sky. Yes, there were lights. We went down to the beach and took photos of the lights over the sea (which I thought was a lake) and the mountains and then we retreated into the lavvu, where there was a bonfire and tea and coffee and marshmallows to toast. There were always people outside and occasionally we’d venture out to see what there was to be seen. I learned the art of the Aurora Selfie – I was using the two-second self-timer to make sure there was no camera shake when I took my long-exposure photos but when it occurred to me that I had a ten-second timer, I could take photos of myself, provided I could stand reasonably still for thirty seconds.
Christina produced some red plastic discs and some of us climbed up the hill to sledge back down – that was good fun, although the shrieks were misinterpreted inside the lavvu as “there are Lights!” when actually they were just “this is fun!”. It’s hard work climbing the hill – in fact, it’s just hard work getting around because the snow is pretty deep and it’s coated in a layer of ice. If you’re careful, you can walk on it but it doesn’t take much to fall in and I was always falling in.
But the Lights came out properly at last, bright enough to see clearly with the naked eye and they twinkled. Not for long, just long enough to take two or three photos before fading back to the very slightly visible whitish glow. They look much more impressive on camera than they did in real life, I assure you.
When we’d taken all our photos and the lights had faded away, we got back in the bus for our long drive home, interrupted twice. Once by a wild reindeer crossing the road and once because the lights were looking good again. Of course, by then the tripods had been handed back so I couldn’t take any photos of them but yes, they were looking ok.
It was half past one by the time I got home and it had been a very long day.