In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 6

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In arctic waters, towards the North Cape

In arctic waters, towards the North Cape

An early start as we reach Hammerfest at 5.15 in the morning. Thank goodness we dock here in daylight on the return journey. My “12 Days” tells me that this was a German naval base during the war. In October 1944, all the inhabitants were removed and the town was razed to the ground. If I could only see in the dark it is probably only modern buildings that are out there. Few people were up to see us dock or leave. I wasn’t there. When I went up we had another snowy squall and you couldn’t see far at all.
There had been more snow in the night and it lasted until mid morning. There was now quite a lot of the white stuff on the decks and all but the toughest stayed inside. Ice was beginning to be a hazard on the decks and the crew was kept busy with salt wherever a patch arose. The weather was beginning to have its affect on humans as well. Where the wind had whipped into hands and other uncovered parts of the body little cuts had opened up. I first became aware when going into dinner one night. As is customary you wash your hands in an alcohol gel on entering the restaurant (and upon each occasion you re-board the ferry) When the alcohol hit my hands, I felt it so now I am using my wife’s moisturising lotion. The odd thing though is you feel it on your thighs as well. Because, I suppose, when you walk your thighs thrust out as you walk, you began to feel slightly sore if you’ve been out walking in one of the squalls. And most of us have.

Over breakfast this morning I heard one lady recount how she had become engaged yesterday in a most romantic manner. One of the excursions had been a reindeer ride. During this sled journey he popped the question.

The other main topic of conversation over meals, especially as new British arrivals turn up is Joanna Lumley. The lady gets everywhere. It seems that a number of people decided to make this journey only after seeing her TV series about it. She slept over at the ice hotel in Kirkenes. We don’t have time to do that but a heck of a lot of people (us included) are off to see the hotel tomorrow.
Although we had a brief stop at Havoysund, the main stop of the day was Honningsvag where we stayed for three and a half hours. It is a small town, only about 3,500 people and all modern for only the church was left standing after the Germans evacuated the town. Until this trip I hadn’t realized the effect of the war on northern Norway. So many towns were almost completely destroyed. To be honest about Honningsvag the town has little to attract the tourist apart from a small museum, some shops and that church. But a far as I was concerned this was one of the best stops on the trip. Why? Because after all the snow and dinginess of the morning grey skies, we arrived there to find no wind and glorious sunshine. Sparkling off the snow of the surrounding hills, just plodding around in the snow up road after road, it was more than pleasant. This was north Norway at its most attractive. The snow now covers the rocky outcrops of the mountains so they look like giant icebergs strewn in the water. I couldn’t have cared less that there was so little in the way of man-made things to see. Nature supplied what man couldn’t.

Honningsvag is also the place where excursions leave from to go the North Cape. This, the most northerly part of Norway attracted a good busload and turned into a bit of an adventure. After the recent snowfall, for the last part of the journey, their coaches were led by a snow plough clearing the way for them. But as we were late, they sat around in the coaches for 20 minutes or so until the plough turned up. You might wonder why theis has an English name. My “12 Days” tells me that, an English explorer, Richard Chancellor, sailed this way in 1553 as he tried to find another route to India. For about 30 years, England claimed these waters as hers before ceding them to the Norwegian king. The name seems to have stuck. There are also reindeer herds up there but they are more likely seen in the summer and autumn.

Most of the town is at the base of a steep mountainside so at various levels there is some net structure (can’t properly see what it is from the ground) which must be there to try and protect the town if there is an avalanche. I haven’t seen this elsewhere nor the sleds that they travel on. This wooden structure with two thin metal blades underneath is used scooter style for people to get around. The wooden part has a seat on which they put their bags.

The final port before dinner is Kjollerfjord and just before it we pass the Finn Church with lights ablaze. It’s no church but a strange weathered rock formation that wasn’t even climbed until 1955. As we neared the town a fisherman came up to the ferry and hurled a bag on board containing king crabs. He then jumped on for a while and explained that these huge crabs are rapidly expanding as they have no natural predators other than man. What do they eat someone asked him. Anything that moves slower than they do was his reply! For dinner that evening amongst all the food, there were king crabs and good eating they are too. Those adventurous people who are having a ride across some of the countryside on snow scooters will leave the ship here and rejoin us later.
From here we steam to the most northerly point of our voyage, Mehamn, where we stop for another one of those fifteen minute pauses in our journey. The surprise was not the town but the approach to it. After dinner I had gone on deck into almost complete darkness. The only lights were the odd navigational beacon. There were few visible stars because of the cloud. And then from a few miles out you could see the lights of Mehamn. But those lights sent a beam hundreds if not a couple of thousand feet into the sky. From darkness into light I could starkly see the effects of light pollution. It also makes me wonder what chances we have of seeing the northern lights when we have to compete against this. No wonder you need to go to the darkest areas of the north to try and hunt them down.

Mehamn, says my “12 Days” was also the site of a protest by fisherman in 1903 over the hunting of the whale. They believed the whales should be preserved because they drove the shoals of small fish that the cod ate. With no whales there would be no small fish which meant no cod and no livelihood for the fishermen. Was this one of the first cases of whale conservation?

Being at the northernmost part of Norway, we have no protection from the islands. The seas are choppier and sometimes we hit the bottom of the trough with quite a thud. In really bad weather, even today, the ferries sometimes have to pull into fjords and wait out the weather. The passengers get sent overland as the ferries turn back.

There are another 3 more stops in the night. Is it worth staying up in the hope that since we are at the northernmost part of the voyage, this might be the best chance of seeing the northern lights? But there is that cloud…

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