LAND OF LIGHT
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
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