In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 1

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Bergen from the sea

Bergen from the sea


For many years, my wife has wanted to see the northern lights, that sparkling shower of light that you see in the night sky up above the Arctic Circle. In just about the only holiday that we have ever planned and paid for months ahead – ours are mostly decided at the last minute – here we were in Bergen in Southern Norway waiting to catch the ferry that would take us to the northernmost tip of the country. In 11 days there should be a fighting chance of seeing the lights, we thought. Yet on the southern journey the ferry crew told us that they had seen the lights just once and that was only for about half an hour.

In winter the ferry leaves at 10.30 at night so there isn’t a lot to see on the first night. Get on board early enough and there is a buffet dinner and safety and introduction meeting in each of the languages of the main travelers. Being a ferry, you see, passengers could get out at any of the ports that we would call at. There and back we would stop 34 times, many for only 15 minutes at a time so packages could be dropped off and collected and people could go about their daily lives.

You cannot really relate this to cruising. There are excursions at some of the larger ports but on board there are no cinemas, floor shows or organised games. This is a working boat which docks at all times of the day and night to continue its work. In winter it is subsidised by the Norwegian government so that there remains a means by which towns have outside contact. There is no subsidy for the rest of the year so the business relies on visitors coming to see the lights, the fjords and just to enjoy the cruise. And as cruising popularity soars ever upward, this trip is still one of the “must do’s” in life. Operating for nearly 118 years years, the first vessel was the SS. Vesteraalen captained by Richard With. Tomorrow, in the evening, we will pass a ferry on its southern journey now called the MS Richard With in honour of that man. Since that day the ferry fleet or coastal steamers have been under a variety of names. Today they are known as Hurtigruten.

When my wife urged me to agree to such a long holiday- we had never been away for 12 whole days before – I wasn’t sure I could remain occupied for such a length of time. After all, I got irritable after just a week. And what would I do in the confines of a ferry with only brief excursions most days?

The Bergen Tourist Office

The Bergen Tourist Office

I was going to have to pack for 12 days. Me, who only lived out of hand baggage! How do you pack for the warmth of a ship and the freezing cold of the Arctic where temperature will be minus 15? Who knows, but at the end of the voyage I’ll let you know whether we packed too much or too little, too much of the wrong things and too few of what we needed. It might help some of you who might be thinking of taking this trip. All I know is that we have two heavy cases and the handle has broken off one already!
In America of all places, I picked up a 47 year book called “12 days on the Norwegian Coastal Steamer.” This was the exact same trip that we were taking only nearly half a century later. The same 1,200 miles that we would cover. The book records that the further north we get, the ferry becomes the most important feature of the day and people come out to meet it. Surely that can’t that still be the case today? After all, there are planes and airports in the most inaccessible of places.

This then, is the record of the eleven day trip and a day in Bergen being sent back to CD-Traveller the day after we travel. My apologies in advance if there is no story one day. If the Wifi signal is weak as it may be on certain days, there will be no diary. Otherwise prepare for the ramblings of a man who desires nothing less than just one thing. The merest of glimpses of the northern lights.

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