In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 7

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Kirkenes

Kirkenes

There was no call overnight so most of us just slept. As we are reaching the turning point of the journey I am beginning to think we won’t see the northern lights on this trip. At breakfast there was still optimistic talk of how this is the best year to be able to see them; the solar activity is just right and so-and-so knows a man who knows a man who says… You know how the story goes.
It is a very bright sunny day so the trips out of Kirkenes should be at their best. We are off to the Ice Hotel and a tour around the town whilst others are off to the Russian border or some other activity. We are only here for three and a bit hours as we are late getting here. With a ferry, delays are inevitable given the amount of freight they might need to load at different stops. The odd thing is though that, although the ferry is largely automated and could steer itself, docking and leaving a port is a manual activity. So far, when we have docked, there hasn’t been a single bump. Someone has good driving skills. Having now said that, their luck probably won’t hold out for the rest of the trip.

Reindeer

Reindeer

So to Kirkenes, this not so small town (compared to others we have visited) of 10,000 people that lies nestled just in from the Barents Sea. The guidebook says that it is home to thirty different nationalities including, of all people, a large group from the Philippines. Ashore, we are told there are 70 different nationalities all of whom live harmoniously together. As we dock the temperature from the outside of the ship drops from about minus 4 to minus 10 on the land. I hadn’t expected such a big difference but, with the wind, it is raw. It isn’t snowing but the wind whips up uncompacted snow and hurls it around without discrimination. Good gloves and hats, I find essential although some people are gloveless. Even taking gloves off for a minute or so in order to takes pictures leaves fingers really feeling the cold.

Entrance to the Ice Hotel

Entrance to the Ice Hotel

Ice Hotel bedroom

Ice Hotel bedroom

Two busloads of us head off to the Ice Hotel, the place that was awarded the National Geographic Magazine Award as one of the best 25 new adventure places in 2008. If you think this is just a hotel, there is a surprise in store for you. After a quick trip through the town to see the harbour with a large Russian based trawler fleet, a bypass around to see the town to go past the iron ore smelting plant we leave the town for the hotel which is a few miles outside. One guidebook says it is about 20 minutes walk. Forget it, it’s much further and not walkable in winter or in summer.

You might have thought that the Gabba was an Australian cricket ground. Here it’s the name of the complex that houses the hotel. The hotel is an igloo for want of a better word with pods off it for each of the bedrooms. Each bedroom is circular with beds made up on solid blocks of ice. Behind each bed is a carving in the ice, all of which incidentally, is taken from a lake which is now frozen. We were considering staying overnight here but, on reflection, glad that we didn’t. It could be a bit too cold for us. The bedding was icy and I do mean it had ice on it but you would be wearing very protective clothing. What has been created here is a tourist attraction that wasn’t there before. The carving of the friezes behind the beds and in the main room is appealing and friendly. But you’re not just visiting the hotel. There is a paddock that some of the roaming reindeer come down to, 3 in particular, and that you can see at close quarters whilst the guide explains their lifestyle. And yes, one is called Rudolph.

There are also kennels for 81 dogs that are used to pull sleds for tourists to travel on. We saw 4 coming around the lake just as we went into a warm restaurant hut where we were treated to a hot drink of cloudberry juice and a reindeer sausage. The whole excursion took just over 2 hours and nowhere did time seem to lag. Not that you’d have wanted to hang around given the cold. It was minus 18 a few days ago so we had brought the warmth, one local said!

Tomorrow, a special event was taking place. A wedding. In national costume, the bride would come across the lake drawn by a reindeer sled and then the marriage would be in the main area of the hotel. It isn’t usual for marriages to take place in the Ice Hotel, the feeling being that church is where this should happen so the hotel had to get permission to hold it. But as the bride and groom were both locals and not these intruding tourists, it was agreed!

As a parting gesture we were told that January and early February had been a great time to see the northern lights. This had been one of the best years in recent memory. Is this what all the tourists hear because the guides know that is what they want to hear or is this genuine?

Ferry surrounded by thin ice

Ferry surrounded by thin ice

Back at the ferry we see that ice has formed all the ferry and perhaps up to 50 yards out into the fjord. It was a bit disappointing as we left to see that we backed out and the ice didn’t get crunched as you see in films. It just got shunted aside.

So now starts the homeward journey back to Bergen. This becomes a faster trip as we stay in places for much shorter periods so in 5 days we will be back Or it might be longer because already the captain has decided to reduce speed as the next part of the journey to Vardo has some rough water. It’s surprising to think that both Kirkenes and Vardo are more easterly than Cairo or Istanbul. Somehow that never occurs to you but given the shape of the Earth and how far north we are, it becomes obvious.

Vardo is one of those places we only see at night in winter so what it really looks like I have no idea. We just see lights on the shore and a tall church spire. It’s on an island and probably doesn’t even need the ferry these days as there is a tunnel that connects to the mainland. There are 2 other ports at which we dock tonight. Does that mean there will be too much light to see those reclusive northern lights?

No it doesn’t. Just after 11pm we get the word. They are visible on the port side. Scrambling into outer layers of clothing, most of the passengers are out there quickly. (maybe if lifeboat drills were treated like this, people would get to the boat stations faster!) No fashion contests will be won as many are wearing pyjama bottoms sticking out from under ski jackets.

They lasted for about half an hour. Obviously what I missed before my arrival I cannot say. What I saw was a huge horseshoe shape in the sky to start with which became a waterfall shape and then, finally, an “L” shape. There were gaps between all three. Plainly visible they were grey/white shafts of light in the night sky that grew slightly brighter as your eyes became more used to the dark. Some claimed to see green tints but I’m not sure I did. In photographs you see the lights in green but that isn’t what these looked like in real life. People were struggling with cameras and more than one flash went off which wouldn’t have helped a bit. We were all told that you can’t take the lights with a flash. You need the flash turned off and long exposures. I should have asked Anthony or Peter before I came. As professional photographers they could have given me sounder advice than I knew. So you have no photographs from me of the sight because I took none. I just leant over the ship’s rail and watched. And watched. Despite the cold. And that I was in my slippers!

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