Ice and Warm

‘I have lost my origin
And I don't want to find it again
Whether sailing into nature's laws
And be held by ocean's paws

Wanderlust! relentlessly craving
Wanderlust! peel off the layers
Until we get to the core’
                                                                                   
                                                                        - by Björk, from ‘Wanderlust’


Hurtigruten in Port

The sea was ink, black enough not to need night, which befit because there was none.  The boat had seemed altogether larger when things had been calm; but now it listed painfully, one side then the other; charting the seismic turmoil of the sea and my stomach.  It was cold: a few minutes in that icy water and death would find me.  Nobody could survive that.  I hoped the biting air would refocus attention, stave off the actual vomiting.  Being the only fool to be outside in that turbulence I sang loudly songs invented in Sydney with a friend when we were kids; not least about feeling warm.  The howling wind was my only audience.  Feeling warm: it was summer after all, but this was the Arctic Ocean. I hoped to make it through to the Vardø port.

I was eighteen then and living as an exchange student in Norway; six months into the year.  It was summer holidays and my Norwegian father had some business to attend to in Tromsø, in the country’s far north.  I could go if I wished, he’d said, to see more of Norway; he’d shout the plane fare but I’d have to look after myself when we got there because his schedule was hideous.  We’d jetted into Tromsø, 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and found the midrange hotel he’d booked.  Norway is expensive: it’s not something I could have afforded.

Winter nights and summer days are long in all of Norway but in Tromsø for approximately two months in deep winter the sun never finds the ambition to rise and for two months in high summer it never bothers to set.  Surely these are symptoms of depression?  Like a vagabond the summer sun restlessly travels the sky, dipping nearly to the horizon in the west before reconsidering, itching, scratching and reaching upwards again, only to, twelve hours later, similarly dip towards the east.  The summer sun is indecisive and insincere.

Tromsø is sprinkled about the sides of its fjord like chocolate decorations on a cake.  There’s a modest arched bridge spanning the water and the angular, layered Arctic Cathedral in white, sitting by the fjord’s edge like an iceberg.  But it’s that matter of light that brings the tourists, in winter to experience the sheets of the aurora borealis in the long night and in summer to see the midnight sun.

There was a cluster of tourists assembled on that minor mountaintop, still snow-dusted, to the north of Tromsø city.  Like the others I’d found a place to sit and gaze out towards the sun, now and then checking the small alarm clock I’d brought.  I’ve rarely been one for watches.  There were two elderly ladies nearby, Norwegian pensioners.  It was more than eleven thirty p.m. and as we waited for midnight we chatted. 

I remember those ladies because after a good while of Norwegian chitchat and under precisely what circumstances I do not recall I had to point out to them that I wasn’t Norwegian.  I needed to say it!  One of the ladies was quite shocked, explaining that from my speech she had no inkling I wasn’t a national.  The other said she’d thought there might’ve been a slight accent.  It was the first time I’d accidentally pulled off a good slab of the language without my foreign-ness being detected.  And with that, enough minutes had passed.  Just above the horizon, it was: the midnight sun.

Sami Lady
In the old days the small towns and fishing villages of the Norwegian Arctic were isolated; they still are.  In yesteryears there was a greater reliance on ships to bridge the distances and connect those communities to the wider world.  The Hurtigruten or ‘Express Route’ started in 1893 as a postal and cargo ship that sailed northwards from Norway’s second city Bergen, for more than two thousand kilometres and six days to reach the remote town of Kirkenes, by Norway’s short border with Russia. 

The Hurtigruten fleet still runs, though these days it caters as well to tourists.  With the popularity of the trip the size of the ships has grown and most of the fleet are more akin to luxury liners than to their smaller wooden ancestors.  With my Norwegian father occupied in Tromsø I’d decided to take the Hurtigruten across Norway’s Arctic scalp to Kirkenes, in itself a few days’ journey.

Skjervøy, Øksfjord, Havøysund, Honningsvåg: some of the scattered towns and villages where the ship would dock to unload and reload, with minutes or hours to walk around onshore.  In Hammerfest is the headquarters of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society; on Magerøya is the North Cape with its distinctive metallic globe statue, a place celebrated as the northernmost point of continental Europe.  This part of Scandinavia is home to the indigenous Sami people, traditional reindeer herders with colourful national dress and quite moving drum-and-throat style songs.

In Norway’s north the tree line, the height above which trees cannot grow, usually associated with mountain tops, is reduced by the latitude to zero metres.  The cold makes the tree’s sap freeze; the permafrost prevents roots from growing.  In Norway’s north the tallest plant life consists of the rock-clinging mosses the reindeer eat.  But in Vardø the townspeople have tried to grow a handful of trees: in winter they are boarded up and heated, occasionally they have blossomed in the short summer season, sometimes despite the human care the trees perished regardless.

Reindeer
While I thought the Arctic Ocean was rough the day I reached Vardø on the way to Kirkenes, on the following day, when I waited by the wharf for the following Hurtigruten ship, I knew I had been lucky.  The passengers from this second ship, as they stepped off in Vardø looked shaken and stunned.  I asked what the matter was: the sea had been so rough people had been thrown out of their cabin beds.

On finally reaching Kirkenes I was exhausted.  Norway is expensive so I’d not been able to buy a cabin on the ship, just a ticket with nowhere to properly sleep before Vardø; and I’d economised on food.  Those were ‘packet of chips and glass of water for dinner’ days: what was of greater importance, money or seeing things?  In Kirkenes I found a hotel for the night which was a bit expensive for me, but I took in because it included breakfast the next morning, between seven and nine a.m. and I looked forward to that.  By early evening I was asleep.

On waking I felt utterly refreshed.  I knew it had been many hours.  Searching around in my bag I found the alarm clock, and to my horror it was already eleven.  I had missed the breakfast hour!  There was nothing to do about it so I packed up and headed out into the street, hoping to see a bit of the town before my flight back to Tromsø to meet my Norwegian father. 

I was quite a way down the main street, still disappointed that I’d missed breakfast, when I noticed something odd.  The main street of Kirkenes was almost deserted and all the shops were closed.  Surely they should have been open by eleven.  And then it dawned on me: twenty-four hours of daylight!  It was only eleven p.m.  Laughing at myself I returned to the hotel, went back to bed and got up, this time in time for breakfast.

I must have stayed at many hundreds of hotels over the years, houses, tents; slept on buses, trains, planes and boats.  The accommodation on my return to Tromsø was unique.  I’d gone back as planned to the nice hotel where my Norwegian father was staying, and reception gave me a note from him.  ‘I had to leave early,’ it read, ‘but I know the hotel manager and he is organising a free night for you.’  The hotel staff took me down a corridor to the janitor’s cupboard: a very small room where they’d rearranged a few things to fit in a tiny bed.  It was there among the mops and brooms, the spare sheets and pillow cases, towels and toiletry supplies that I stayed on the last midnight sun day-night.

Sami camp, for the tourists...





This far north and have you met the Clauses? Or maybe time to hop down south or head for heat if the Arctic's too cold.  Wanderlust!

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Ice and Warm





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