LAND OF LIGHT

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

From Page 1 the most in­hos­pitable, wild place you can imag­ine. The first tour to the North Cape (lat­i­tude: 71 de­grees 10’21’’) was or­gan­ised by Thomas Cook in 1875.

At that stage, there were no roads and the trav­ellers had to approach by boat, then scale a sheer cliff face, wear­ing the full Vic­to­rian garb of top hats and crino­lines. I only ap­pre­ci­ate the mad­ness of this on ar­rival, by which time it is mid-af­ter­noon and nearly pitch-black. The wind emits a blood­cur­dling shriek; there is a rag­ing bliz­zard and the tour guide warns us with mis­placed in­sou­ciance not to stand too close to the edge.

I am dressed with al­most teenage in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness in a pair of jeans, a parka and sev­eral lay­ers of jumpers. It does noth­ing to keep out the bit­ter cold. I should have brought my ther­mals, I think to my­self, be­fore re­mem­ber­ing that I don’t own any. Still, it does feel pe­cu­liarly mag­nif­i­cent to be stand­ing at the edge of the world, over­look­ing sheer cliffs and a rag­ing sea. Then my mo­bile phone goes off, which ru­ins the am­bi­ence slightly.

There are sev­eral other ex­cel­lent ex­cur­sions or­gan­ised from the ship, and though I gen­er­ally use hol­i­days as an ex­cuse for ex­cep­tional lazi­ness, I find my­self en­joy­ing ev­ery one of them. While be­ing on board and watch­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary scenery pass your cabin win­dow has its charms, you can start to feel a bit trapped un­less you make the ef­fort to dis­em­bark.

And it is an ef­fort at those times of year when the sun stays be­low the hori­zon and only dim light is pro­vided by re­flec­tion from the snow’s sur­face. At 9am, I find it hor­ri­bly dif­fi­cult to drag my­self out of bed when faced with a blan­ket of thick grey cloud and the knowl­edge that it is go­ing to be to­tally dark by lunchtime.

But once I have made it down the gang­way, I par­tic­u­larly en­joy the snow­mo­bile ex­pe­di­tions out­side Kjolle­fjord with Kjell Sorbo, a charm­ing lo­cal guide, and the fan­tas­tic king crab sa­fari. The crabs in this part of the world truly de­serve their ma­jes­tic moniker; they can mea­sure 2m across and weigh up to 15kg. At the Arc­tic Ad­ven­ture re­sort, 20 min­utes out­side Kirkenes, you can watch fish­er­men dive for a crab in a gleam­ing clear-wa­ter fjord, cook it, then serve it to you for lunch with a glass of white wine. You can eat as much as you want as they just keep bring­ing out more crus­taceans. I man­age two vast, fleshy legs be­fore I have to leave to catch the ship, curs­ing its punc­tu­al­ity.

About 25km out­side Tromso, we drive to a Sami com­mu­nity to go rein­deer sledg­ing. I am trussed up in a gi­ant red rom­per suit and whisked around the snowy hill­side by a rein­deer at such as­ton­ish­ing speeds I feel as if I’m on a po­lar ver­sion of Top Gear .

The Sami peo­ple — bet­ter known to many as Lapps, though this is now con­sid­ered a deroga­tory term — en­dured years of hard­ship be­tween the two world wars when the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment pur­sued a mis­guided pro­gram of in­te­gra­tion. It be­came il­le­gal to teach the Sami lan­guage in schools and many in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties were forced off the land and into towns, aban­don­ing tra­di­tional liveli­hoods such as rein­deer herd­ing.

The sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter now. The Sami num­ber about 40,000 and have their own par­lia­ment, but only about 3 per cent are still herd­ing rein­deer, many of them in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on the in­come from tourism.

Of course I pre­fer my old life in the moun­tains,’’ says my 24-year-old guide, Jo­hanisaak. It’s the free life, there’s no look­ing at your watch, you live with your rein­deer close around you. But times have changed and now we are very happy that tourists want to come and see how we live.’’

The Sami peo­ple are fas­ci­nat­ing to talk to. Like the Inuit, they have many words for snow, though with the dam­age wrought by global warm­ing, they have lost quite a few of them. His­tor­i­cally, they be­lieved ev­ery­thing in na­ture had its own divine spirit and that the north­ern lights were ce­les­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the souls of the dead.

It is only when I get my first glimpse of the lights that I can truly ap­pre­ci­ate this sen­ti­ment. The an­nounce­ment comes over the ship’s PA sys­tem about 4pm on the sec­ond day and I rush up­stairs, shoes un­laced, to the top deck. It is a faint green­ish glim­mer at first, a pas­tel line drawn across the indigo sky. Then the lights grow brighter un­til they are al­most flu­o­res­cent, shim­mer­ing like par­ti­cles of mag­netic dust that co­a­lesce and sep­a­rate, catch­ing the light with each in­fin­i­tes­i­mal move­ment.

It is some­thing so in­ex­pli­ca­bly strik­ing, so oddly mov­ing, that it makes me catch my breath in won­der. Then, af­ter about five min­utes, the emer­ald dust dis­perses, the north­ern lights are blown away into the dark­ness and our ship con­tin­ues its voy­age, fad­ing gen­tly into the Arc­tic night.

This is a stag­ger­ing part of the world, unique in its iso­la­tion, un­sur­pass­able in its opaque beauty. Go now. The Guardian

Check­list

Hur­tigruten has a range of north­ern lights voy­ages from Novem­ber to March. A four-night trip from Tromso to Kirkenes and back in­cludes three nights half-board on the ship, one night B & B in Tromso, re­turn flights from Lon­don, trans­fers and taxes. A range of ex­cur­sions can be added, in­clud­ing a visit to the North Cape, a snow­mo­bile ex­cur­sion and a trip to the Rus­sian border. Hur­tigruten is rep­re­sented in Aus­tralia by My­Planet, which has a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on the ship’s 4000km, 12-day coast­line voy­age from Ber­gen to Kirkenes and back, sav­ing up to $2320; shorter sec­tors avail­able. Valid for travel from Oc­to­ber 15-31. More: www.my­plan­e­taus­tralia.com.au.

Make it snappy: A catch of large crus­taceans is hauled aboard dur­ing a king crab sa­fari

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