Estimated read: 15 minutes
In the past, I’ve given directions in the rain for 12 hours, folded clothes, poured pints and a bunch of other uninspiring jobs to save up. All to get on the road and start a life of travel. Now it’s a bit different. My current employer just sent me to Norway to chase the Northern Lights on an old postal ship, go husky sledding, swim in the Arctic and get drunk (OK, last one wasn’t in the official plan).
Decent job, then.
This post is a bit long, so I’ve split it into bite-size sections for you…
- Tinder in Norway & Ølhallen Pub
- The North Cape
- The Northern Lights
- Illegally Entering Russia
- Kirkenes Snowhotel
- Giant Huskies
- Swimming in the Arctic
- Tying up a Viking-sized man in the pub with gaffer tape and other strange things in Tromsø
- Husky Sledding
Day 0 – An old friend
Direct flights to Tromsø, Norway are a bit of a faff, and UK airports take it in turns for the weekly honour. My London luck was out, so I caught the train to Birmingham, my university stomping ground. I arranged to meet an old housemate, but he’s a lawyer now and wasn’t free until the evening. So I wandered around and picked up all the toiletries, plug adapters and everything else I’d forgotten from a selection of Birmingham’s finest 99p stores.
We had a few beers and before long, I was running for the last train to make it to my airport hotel. Never done the airport hotel thing before, and I’m pretty sure I stumbled over a runway at some point trying to get there, but I finally made it. Only to be told I was in the wrong budget hotel, so I had to stumble around all over again.
Day 1 – Tinder in Tromsø
Neither bright eyed nor bushy tailed, I crossed back over the runway (which turned out to just be a car park) and met with people from other travel companies, all looking forward to flying somewhere cold too. I got chatting to an Irish chap (who would prove to be my roommate) about his epic journey to Birmingham from Dublin. He missed the roll call (in the pub) and raced to the gate, waving frantically at the captain of his plane, while his suitcase was taken off and left on the tarmac.
He had been drinking since 3am (the passenger, although maybe the captain too) and was lucky to get on the plane, having watched the big staircase thing get reattached just for him. While his luck was most certainly Irish, the hospitality he received on boarding the now-delayed plane by his fellow passengers wasn’t.
Somewhere over the North Sea, my hangover faded as his kicked in. He took a snooze as I read excerpts from his Steven Gerard autobiography, which was terrible.
We landed in Tromsø and were greeted by total darkness. Everything screamed nighttime, but a check of the watch revealed it to be just 1pm. Surreal.
I heard the booze in Norway was expensive, so I swung by duty free and picked up a litre of Jägermeister. Said my taks to the gorgeous shop assistant, and promptly felt like a prat for walking out of a Norwegian duty-free with a litre of Jägermeister under my arm. Checking in to the hotel was pretty novel – it was 4* and I was dead impressed – certainly made a change from the prison cells of north India. I was roomies with James the Irishman, and we debated whether Scandinavians would prove to be as hot as everyone said. I put it to the test and hopped onto Tinder, and spent a few minutes swiping left and right…but mostly right.
Being completely dark outside, we were convinced it was time for the pub. Two drinks and 20 quid poorer, I came back grumbling that the Norwegians were either teetotal or exceedingly rich. We discussed the merits of Steven Gerrard, before my phone gave a quick buzz – it was a Tinder match!
Hej Kjersti – any decent pub recommendations?
Hi Ronan. What are you doing in Tromsø? I recommend Ølhallen on Storgata – they have insane amounts of types of beer!
I was totally sold on Ølhallen, and possibly in love with Kjersti. And sure enough, after a bit of chit-chat, I had a date in Tromsø. I wandered up to Ølhallen and tried a few beers before settling on the Nord Lys, while the bartender reckoned that if I drank enough of it, then I’d see the Northern Lights regardless of whether they were there or not. He also plied me with dried haddock crisps – apparently a classic bar snack – but in hindsight I don’t recommend trying them ten minutes before your date turns up.
Was there a second date? Not telling!
Day 2 – Beyond Tromsø
The next morning came and I was introduced to a hungover Scandinavian breakfast. Pushing some pickled herring around a plate with a sore head, I decided it wasn’t for me and elected for the cold bacon and eggs instead.
Just before boarding (do you board or embark a ship?), I was warned by a local that a storm was brewing. He also thought it wise to tell me this particular Hurtigruten vessel, MS Richard With, wasn’t particularly adept at feeling stable during these pesky storms. Thanking him for the heads up, and finding out Norwegians don’t always get sarcasm, I found my cabin and enjoyed a brief nap before the weather turned.
The North Cape (Nordkapp)
It’s not often I feel overawed. The Taj Mahal, sunrise over Bagan and Angkor Wat (even if it was preceded by a ridiculous night where I was subjected to a drag race, mafia anger and a marriage proposal) – there are a small handful of places that have taken my breath away.
The North Cape made it one more.
It was bracingly cold, and there was barely a slither of light emerging from the horizon, resulting in a landscape of white snow, grey sky and wine-dark sea. The haunting steepness of the cliffs to the Arctic waters below really gave me the shivers, and the sensible decision to turn back towards land gave the impression you were on an expedition to the North Pole. I love the cold and definitely felt at home here. Even if the nearest village had 70 residents in summer, and 11 in winter. Maybe I was supposed to be a hermit.
As the winds raged and the snow swept, it felt oddly peaceful. In amongst the noise was a vast silence – the sound of nothing as far as the eye could see. You certainly didn’t want to be left on your own here overnight.
Translation: pretty damn close to the North Pole
Conclusion: Epic. Cold. Like really cold.
The Northern Lights
It’s what everyone came to see. One of nature’s finest natural phenomena, I was hoping the Lights would prove as good as everyone said they were. And that they would show at all – they’re not always guaranteed to appear so I guess even a glimpse would be a bonus.
After yet another reindeer stew, I sunk a few beers with the travel consultants until about midnight, and made my way onto the deck to spot these mythical Northern Lights. Standing at the top of the deck with the fierce winds howling, the cold cut right through to the bone and I was sharply reminded of the fact I was off the coast in the Arctic. Epic. Setting up stall with a camera, tripod and a pint of beer, I barely made up for the lack of suitable warm clothing with an ineffective beer jacket, although when I noticed my fingers turning a bit blue I did retreat to the warmth for a bit.
Up above, the Northern Lights swirled and danced amidst the starry sky. It was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, and I’d luckily managed to capture a few shots:
I was a huge fan of the celestial ballet (as I’d thought I had coined until Google showed over 5,000 identical uses), and I enjoyed staying in the sapping cold – a breezy -8º before taking into account the raucous wind chill on the top deck of a ship at sea. I finally retired to bed about 5am to catch a couple of hours’ sleep before the next day.
Where’s my Vitamin D?
Having not seen the sun for about 60 hours, I made sure to have an extra helping of cold mackerel for breakfast. I decided it wasn’t a good substitute for actual sunshine.
Illegally Entering Russia
Kirkenes is right on the Russian border. We were explicitly told not to cross it. That the Russians wouldn’t take it as a joke.
I did it anyway and found it funny, so I guess the Russians have a bad sense of humour.
The next port of call was Kirkenes, home to one of Norway’s snow hotels, a husky farm and some pet reindeers. The Snowhotel was under construction, so unfortunately I couldn’t sit at the ice bar or sleep in a room made of ice, but I was given a lesson on how you actually build a hotel out of ice.
I concluded it required cleverer people than me.
I enjoyed feeding the reindeers, like a kid at the zoo, and I asked the guide what we were feeding them. Apparently it was called lichen, and its frozen state gave it a nice crunch.
I asked if it was safe for humans to eat and, as it was, sampled the reindeers’ snack.
Only afterwards did I find out lichen is a type of fungus that grows on plants.
Tame a Giant Husky
This one wasn’t from the Kirkenes husky farm – he was chained to a rock near the Russian border. He looked a bit on the ferocious side at the start.
But, if you pretend like you’re not about to poo your pants, you might just have a chance of convincing him that he’s actually a big cuddly bear and enjoys a tummy tickle as much as the next massive Arctic dog.
We quickly became inseparable.
Swimming in the Arctic
Every now and then I do something stupid. It was terrifically cold – 4ºC, which is a hell of a lot colder than you think – and someone got completely owned and needed assistance afterwards. The air temperature was -11ºC but it felt like Tenerife compared to being in the water.
I got a certificate
commending acknowledging my stupidity, but it was definitely worth it.
Back on board
After a raucous final night on board the Hurtigruten, with the Isbjørn flowing from the taps and the krone flowing from my wallet, we definitely did our best to persuade people that a Hurtigruten cruise wasn’t just for old people, even if said old people might have made a few complaints. Still, some joined us for a boogie and the night was all rather surreal – I couldn’t decide if cruises could actually be a fun, long-term proposition or not.
En route back to Tromsø the next day, we were allowed up to the captain’s bridge and were given a tour of all the implements, buttons and things that went blip and bleep at strangely comforting intervals. It seemed epically cool that the captain could technically navigate using maps, compass and the stars, but apparently he preferred the radar and GPS. Booooo. The little needle used to control the ship seemed implausibly small – I was expecting a proper rudder or a huge ship’s wheel to get behind and shout “AHOY!”
Hopeless romantic, me.
A surreal night in Tromsø
We had one more night in Tromsø before flying home, but it didn’t quite go as planned. Checking back into the Radisson Blu late in the evening, James and I were given the same room again. As we entered, we were suddenly greeted by two pairs of naked legs poking from under the duvet, and they began to stir – fast.
Scrambling out the room in fits of giggles, we belted it down the corridor and took refuge in another pair of travel consultants’ room as we caught our breath and tried to figure out why there were naked bodies in our room.
We decided to go to reception at precisely the wrong moment, as a large German man came striding out the room in a dressing gown, eyeing us up angrily as we did a bad job of keeping a poker face.
We knew that he knew it was us, and he knew we knew he knew it was us. Sorry, Herr angry man!
After being given a new room, we tentatively poked our heads round and pushed the door open quietly, but this one was safe. Dropping our bags off and deciding it was definitely beer o’clock, we met up with the other travel consultants in the nearby Rorbua Pub.
There was some live music on, and on seeing us, the band played a string of British hits and forced us all to sing along, or sing to the pub while he took a breather.
Our talents got us noticed, and a pair of large Norwegians sat themselves down at our table, quite literally flexing their biceps at us, and pulling up their jeans to show their calves. One of them had a distinct whiff of Viking about him, with a sizeable ginger beard and massive physique.
No matter, as he had been drinking so heavily that he could barely prop himself up. So, borrowing some gaffer tape from the band (don’t ask why they had some!) the Viking’s mate proceeded to tie him against a pole in order to keep him upright.
Suddenly the Viking didn’t seem so scary any more, and we enjoyed returning the favour showing him how strong we were.
The night didn’t end there. As James and I were minding our own business back at the hotel, brushing our teeth in our boxers, there was a commotion outside our room. We peeked out and found a bunch of kids/early 20s hanging out outside our door, all as pissed as we were. Turns out they had just finished their military service and were out to celebrate.
So we stood and made friends for a good 20 minutes, not bothering to get dressed in front of the mixed group. They were either too pissed to notice our attire or were very polite.
Just as bleary-eyed and hungover as the trip began, we woke on the final day and were whisked off to Villmarksenter in Tromsø. With serious doubts as to whether I’d make it off the bus before throwing up, we arrived and I promptly threw up. Well timed.
It was still dark when we were introduced to the huskies, and we donned some overalls that made us look more like fighter pilots than husky sledders, but we sure did look cool. We were advised to wear balaclavas, as apparently huskies have a tendency to spray their shit at you as they scamper deep into the wilderness. They certainly don’t tell you that in the adverts, so the honesty from the husky mushers was appreciated. However, it didn’t happen in the end, so it might have just been another case of “the famous Norwegian sense of humour” that various Norwegians had told me about, and had clearly gone flying over my head.
Pretending I knew what I was doing, I surveyed every husky harnessed to my sled and gave one or two a pat, mentioning to the musher that one of them “looked nervous”. She stared at me blankly and I made a mental note that it was now 1-1 in the contest between the famous Norwegian sense of humour and the famous British sense of humour.
Off and away, the yapping huskies sprang forward and all fell silent in unison as they hurried into the abyss. It was still dark, which gave the ride a moody, atmospheric feel to it. It was an absolute thrill, to be carving through the snow with pine forests on either side layered in a blanket of white, led by a pack of fervent huskies.
It transpired that my huskies were being trained for a 1,100km endurance race across the Finnmark region called Finnmarksløpet. That’s some serious mileage, and I felt privileged to be whisked about by such a team of elite racing dogs. On and on they went with an unrelenting level of energy, and I was happy to just enjoy the ride.
The light broke and, as we carved our way up a hill and reached its summit, it suddenly looked like full-on daylight, with blue skies and mountainous terrain in the distance, while the snow became dazzling and radiant. The fresh air and sheer exhilaration had completely blown the hangover away, and I was riding a wave of adrenaline that I hadn’t felt since beating the Elite Four on Pokémon for the first time.
After the ride had ended, I was free to play with the rest of the huskies, although they seemed to have limitless energy and it was a battle to do anything other than be climbed all over.
I highly recommend husky sledding. 10/10.
On that note, I also highly recommend Norway. The people are lovely, the natural beauty is just something else and the winter activities are truly special. Just a shame about the cost of a pint!