Category Archives: Travel

Search for the Northern Lights – Part 4

Click for parts onetwo and three

As good as it gets, sun-wise, in midwinter Tromso!

As good as it gets, sun-wise, in midwinter Tromso!

New Year’s Eve dawned with the same beautifully clear skies as the previous night. To the south, the sky was tinged with a hint of pink-orange that lightened to a glorious golden yellow as the day went on – as close as Tromsø gets to a sunrise and sunlight at that time of year. It was the lightest it had been all week but it was still strange that the rest of the sky was doing a very good impression of twilight at 11am. Moonrise happened at lunchtime, with a bright almost-half-moon appearing over the mountains to the west.

Lunchtime moonrise

Lunchtime moonrise

I did a bit of shopping, picking up some last minute souvenirs in the tourist information centre and the ‘best souvenir shop in Tromsø’ (or so they proclaimed on the front of the shop). I ventured into the shopping centre for the first time that week, having avoided too much commercialism up to that point! The shopping centre was much the same as shopping centres everywhere (it even had a Body Shop and H&M) which was a bit disappointing. Quite a lot of shops were open for shortened hours on New Year’s Eve, so I bought a couple of things and tried out my fledgling Norwegian on some more unsuspecting sales assistants. One issue with trying to speak a language is whether or not you understand what people say to you in response, which I didn’t! I found out that ‘Happy New Year’ is ‘Godt Nyttår’ in Norwegian and resolved to say it to someone in the next 24 hours. I decided to try and find something with cloudberries in, but the only things I could find were expensive (and heavy) jams, so I gave it a miss. I’ll find some next time I go! I checked out the price of dairy products, having heard about the Norwegian butter crisis and although I couldn’t find any butter, the ‘normal’ cheese appeared to cost somewhere between £10-15 for an amount that would probably cost less than £5 in the UK.

Early afternoon temperature

Early afternoon temperature

As it started to get properly dark, I returned to the hotel to relax and chill out ready to stay up late and see the new year in. I’d been curious as to whether northern Norwegians would like fireworks, but having spotted several pop-up stalls selling fireworks along the main road to the science centre the previous day, I figured they would probably be fairly popular. As it was, the first few fireworks were being let off sporadically at about 5pm, and by 10pm or so there were constant bangs and flashes outside.

At about 11:30pm I wrapped myself up in several layers of warm clothing and started to walk down to the harbourside. Fireworks were going off everywhere, all along the island behind me and spanning the mainland opposite as far as I could see. There were even fireworks going off on top of the mountain already. I started to worry that I wouldn’t know when it was actually midnight because the fireworks couldn’t possibly increase in number! (This video from 2010/11, filmed from the top of the mountain, gives some idea of just how many fireworks there were). Smoke drifted across the rooftops and glowing red flares hung suspended above the city. The harbourside area I was aiming for was ostensibly fenced off but part of the fencing was open and there were lots of people there already. I crunched across the crisp, undisturbed snow to near the water’s edge. A couple a few yards away were getting ready to toast the arrival of 2012 with champagne, while a group tried in vain to light a sky lantern on my other side, almost setting themselves on fire several times in the process.

Up on the mountainside, a small group of torchlights seemed to be up to something, and it soon became clear what it was: lighting flaming torches to spell out ‘2011’ in huge letters. Someone close by commented, ‘well, they’ve got the wrong year, haven’t they?’. A large Hurtigruten ship was docked close by, and many of its passengers were leaning out to watch the spectacle. As midnight arrived, the ship gave a massive blast on its horn and an epic firework display started on top of the mountain. There were even fireworks going up from the roof of the ship, to add to the cacophony of banging, shrieking and fizzing. The mountaintop fireworks were so vast that the entire mountainside lit up in red and green in the darkness. A solitary torchlight painstakingly changed the year to ‘2012’ on the side of the mountain before joining its fellows up on the peak again. I managed to get a couple of short videos of the fireworks:

As I headed back to the hotel, half an hour after midnight, the fireworks were still going in as much of a frenzy as they had been at midnight. The temperature on the shopping centre showed an almost subtropical -6C but it definitely felt a lot colder than that! Arriving back, I wrote out my New Year’s Resolutions, packed the rest of my things and went to bed, ready to head home the next day.

I won’t go into detail about my journey home but suffice it to say that snow caused delays in Oslo which meant that our plane was late in getting to us in Tromsø in the first place. By the time we arrived in Oslo, the connecting flight was long gone, which meant facing a long night sleeping in Oslo airport. However, the airline were very helpful and put up the twenty or so of us who had missed our flight in a posh hotel less than a minute’s walk from the airport. They even paid for dinner at the hotel. Then the next day we were reallocated to seats on one of the first flights to Heathrow, and got home only twelve hours or so later than expected. I was very impressed!

Becky

Search for the Northern Lights – Part 3

Click for parts one and two

On my fourth day in Tromsø, I walked to the other end of the island to visit the Vitensenter, a science centre mostly aimed at kids. Once again I decided to walk but it would have been far better to take the bus as the walk was long and featureless and occasionally perilous on the icy pavements. Plus I overshot the turning uphill to the centre and had to retrace my steps through deep snow. The quickest way to the top of the hill seemed to be through the Botanic Garden, which is apparently quite the tourist attraction when it’s not covered by 2ft of snow! The garden doesn’t seem to be visited much in the winter so I followed a single set of footprints in the snow, up through all kinds of exotic plant life (so the signs said) and leafless trees until I arrived at a small wooded area at the top of the hill and stumbled gratefully into the warmth and light pouring from the science centre.

The centre itself is great if you’re a parent with kids as there are all kinds of interactive things to do. The centre has sections dedicated to the weather, the sky, the body etc over four floors which are still interesting if you’re a grown up. I’ll be honest, I only went because it was recommended in the tourist guides, and because they have a planetarium which shows a 25 minute film about the aurora. Having explored the centre a little faster than I expected, I took a seat and rested my weary legs in the little seating area on the second floor. Tromsø looked very pretty in the fast-approaching darkness, lights twinkling across the water and lighting up the snow.

I was interested to see what the aurora looked like in the planetarium show, having seen it in real life the previous evening. The film itself was made by using time-lapse photography which, by its very nature, makes the lights look faster and brighter than they might seem to the naked eye. It was all very pretty and colourful, but I felt glad that I’d taken the time and made the effort to see the aurora for myself. I’ve since found a stunning video on Vimeo from 2010, and another one from 2009,  which gives a more accurate impression of the aurora, and were actually made in and around Tromsø.

Having trekked all the way to the science centre, I decided to be brave and get the bus back to the city centre. The bus drivers don’t seem to be bothered by the snowy and icy conditions and occasionally vertiginous terrain of Tromsø, flinging the buses around with gay abandon. I suspect they probably have similar tyres to those used on the aurora-seeking minibuses, with extra texture and maybe even metallic studs helping to keep the vehicle on the road.

After making myself some dinner I set off for the third and final attempt at aurora hunting. We drove down dark roads edged with snow-covered pines, to another middle-of-nowhere spot, ringed by spectacular mountains. The sky had been clear all day, and stars blazed gloriously in their thousands overhead. A fat crescent moon shone brightly near the horizon, creating a spectacular halo in the dark night. A thin ribbon of auroral light swayed gently from behind the nearest mountain but soon flickered out. Another hazy arc appeared to the south, low over the horizon, and I finally managed to get my one decent photo! As the moon set behind one mountain, another long stream of light poured over the closest mountain, joined quickly by a stream to the south, until the light felt like a huge river. Waves and curtains and bands of subtle glowing green spanned from horizon to horizon, bathing us in photons. Light flowed and pulsed over our heads, and it seemed to be so close that I could have reached up a hand and touched it. Shooting stars streaked across behind the lights, enhancing the wondrous celestial display still further…

My best aurora picture

My best aurora picture

The camera moved a bit on this one but you get the idea

The camera moved a bit on this one but you get the idea

I had to retreat to the warmth of the minibus a few times, as the
-8°C temperature outside was painful on fingers and toes, despite my special thermal gloves and industrial-strength Arctic boots. The lights were visible even through the tinted windows of the minibus, where several of us huddled in the dark. I ventured outside a few more times but alas, all too soon it was time to drive back to Tromsø. Ivar announced that the display we’d seen was about a three or four out of ten on his arbitrary scale-of-aurora-amazingness, which was good considering the previous nights’ displays had been a one and a less-than-one respectively. I felt a bit sad that it was the last of the trips, as over the week I’d become, in Ivar’s words, ‘a ghost on the bus’, an omnipresent aurora seeker. Still, I had New Year’s Eve to look forward to, something that Tromsø does very well indeed.

Search for the Northern Lights – Part 2

Click for part one

On the third day, I was supposed to have been going cross country skiing but unfortunately the conditions were too wet for a beginner. So instead I had a look around the harbour area, marvelling at the size of the Hurtigruten ship arriving into Tromsø (Hurtigruten was an option I considered for my holiday but decided to stay in one place in the end). There weren’t that many people around and they were all very well wrapped up against the cold, which led me to wonder: does everyone in Tromsø have permanent ‘hat hair’ in the winter?

The epic bridge (photo taken on the first day)

The epic bridge (photo taken on the first day)

I walked across the epic bridge that connects the island of Tromsøya (where most of Tromsø city is located) to the mainland. It took me a good 15-20 minutes to cross it and I’m a fairly fast walker, so that gives you perhaps some idea of how long this bridge is!

View from the epic bridge

View from the epic bridge

My destination on the mainland was the cable car (fjellheisen) that goes up Mount Storsteinen. There’s a bus that goes from the city centre to the cable car, but I prefer to walk. The bridge ends next to the stunning Arctic Cathedral which is one of Tromsø’s best known and most visible landmarks.

The Arctic Cathedral

The Arctic Cathedral

A short walk through a residential area led me to the lower cabin for the cable car where there were several people waiting. I managed to get a student ticket for the fjellheisen (a bonus of visiting a university city is that no-one bats an eyelid when you ask for student discount) and, once we’d all wedged ourselves into the car, the vertiginous ride up the side of the mountain began. At the top, there was a small building that houses a cafe, which was closed on the day that I visited. Most people headed straight out of the doors to look at the city below. From the viewing deck, the city was glowing in the dusky blue light that counts as daylight in Tromsø in midwinter. I went out from the building, further along the edge of the mountain, a very windy place to be with no fence to catch you. The wind was whipping the powdery top layer of snow up and sending it disappearing over the sheer drop so I was a little careful about how close I got. The snow was very deep and I heard several shrieks of shock from people who had stepped and fallen further into it than they expected, and the laughter of their companions as they tried to rescue them.

View from the top of the mountain

View from the top of the mountain

It got cold on the top of the mountain so I descended the cable car again. I could actually have walked up and down the mountain on what are apparently quite well maintained paths, but sore feet from walking to the museum and back on the previous day meant that mountain climbing probably wouldn’t have been a great idea. I crossed back over the never-ending bridge and had a look around the shops for a bit, then returned to the hotel to prepare for the evening’s outing.

For my second attempt at seeing the lights, Ivar put me on the other minibus, driven by his colleague Roger. I somehow didn’t notice until it was pointed out by a fellow English person on the bus, but Roger has one of the broadest Geordie accents since Ant and Dec, though he’s actually Norwegian. It turns out he spent almost 20 years living in various places in the north of England and has retained the accent after moving back to Norway. Once everyone was safely installed on the buses, we headed out again, further inland this time, eventually stopping on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. It had looked promising on the way, a couple of brighter stars visible overhead, and a scattering of thin, hazy clouds. We made our way out of the buses and looked skyward, where a faint grey-green glow arched overhead from horizon to horizon. It was already better than the previous night, though I still had no real luck with my camera. The clearish sky and hilltop location meant that it was quite a lot colder than before. As on all of the trips, Ivar handed out hot chocolate and homemade chocolate cake about halfway through the evening, which was very popular. Of course, as soon as the cake was being handed out and people stopped looking upwards, the lights decided to shift up a gear and put on a quite spectacular display. They arranged themselves into the familiar bars and blades and shards of luminescence that I associate with the aurora, glowed with a subtle, indescribable pale green, then looped and curled around in what I believe is known as an auroral substorm. The lights changed, undulated, swayed and breathed across the sky. I spent a large part of the evening leaning backwards over the bonnet of one of the minibuses, to save myself from neck strain and jaw ache from gazing in wonder at the spectacle above.

A thin layer of cloud started to cover the sky at this point, but the lights were impressive even through the haze, and they danced on for a long time. I found it funny that you could tell when they were doing something particularly interesting, because a few people were quite audibly excited, and they laughed, gasped and shrieked at the amazingness of it all.

One more aurora trip left – would the weather hold out?

Search for the Northern Lights – Part 1

It’s been one of my life’s ambitions to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). What with this year being the best time to see the lights in fifty years, or so I read, I decided to make use of that limbo period between Christmas and New Year and jet off on holiday to try and see the aurora ‘in the wild’.

My research led me to choose Tromsø (Google Map), Norway for my holiday as it’s one of the best destinations for Northern Lights spotters: right in the middle of the aurora borealis ‘zone’, it’s the only city in northern Norway and there are  frequent flights to and from the region. Norway can be expensive but I went with budget options for everything and took my own food (food and drink and eating out cost a lot more than we’re used to, and the fish-and-meat-centric diet doesn’t work so well if you’re vegetarian, as I am). The average daily temperature for Tromsø at that time of year is -3°C, so I was a little worried about feeling the cold but it’s fine if you’re suitably wrapped up. The sun doesn’t appear over the  horizon in Tromsø from roughly the end of November to the end of January, and the lack of sunlight felt a bit odd at times.

I landed in Tromsø at about 2pm after transferring at Oslo from London. The sky was black and it was snowing heavily, and I was a bit worried that it might be just as dark and snowy for the entire week! As we taxied to the terminal building, I was very impressed to see three massive snowplough vehicles doing formation driving in order to clear the runway. After catching the Flybussen coach to the city centre, I negotiated the icy pavements, found my hotel and checked in, then  attempted to recover from the morning’s slightly overenthusiastic 3am start.

View of the snow from my hotel room window

View of the snow from my hotel room window - mid afternoon!

I chose my hotel (City Living) on the basis that every room has a kitchenette consisting of at least a fridge, hob and cooking utensils, a great way to stick to budget. My room was small but perfectly formed, clean and nicely decorated and very comfortable. The whole hotel looked very clean and well looked after and was a couple of minutes’ walk from the main shopping street and harbourside. It was ideal for people who want to be self-sufficient and independent (two of my favourite things to be), and was more like apartment style accommodation than your average hotel. There were a few small supermarkets in the vicinity where I bought some perishable items and snacks and tried out some basic Norwegian on the cashiers, with mixed results!

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

Sleeping area

Sleeping area

After a good night’s sleep, I headed out to get my bearings and make sure I could find the pickup point for the Northern Lights trips that I’d booked. The pickup point turned out to be about a two minute walk down towards the harbour and was easy to find. Once I’d worked out where I was, I decided to walk to the Tromsø Museum (though there are buses, I generally like to walk when I’m on holiday, and get the feel of a place). It took a little longer than expected, mostly because I was still getting used to the snowy and icy conditions, and I kept getting distracted and taking photos of the mountain/houses/snow/pretty lights. The museum itself was very educational and had an aurora simulator designed by a ‘mad Norwegian scientist’ (not my words!). There are exhibitions about geology, the aurora, Sami history, Stone Age life and evolution, as well as a well-stocked gift shop. I walked back to the city centre through a snowstorm so heavy that I couldn’t see the mountains ringing Tromsø, or the sea surrounding it. I had trouble seeing anything more than a couple of streets away!

Tromso Museum

Tromso Museum

I cooked myself some dinner then set about finding some extra layers to wear for the evening’s attempt to see the aurora. Suitably attired, I headed down to find the minibuses belonging to Natur i Nord. I’d spoken to the very helpful Ivar at  Natur i Nord via e-mail for a few months before going, asking all kinds of questions and finding out information about the trips. It was no surprise therefore that he knew who I was when I said my name. What can I say, I ask a lot of questions!

Snow was still falling at this point, though not as heavily as before, so myself and the rest of the aurora seekers on the trip clambered aboard the minibuses and set off. After about an hour or so’s drive, we stopped in the middle of nowhere, and Ivar assured us that the clouds above were expected to clear within an hour or so. And lo and behold, they did, slowly revealing a starry sky and a strange sort of smudgey glow. It almost looked like moonlight on the edge of the clouds, but there were no clouds and it was such an unusual glow that it was obvious that this was something else. Sure enough, this was the fabled aurora. I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed but Ivar informed us that it wasn’t a very good example of the aurora. While other people who were more au fait with their camera settings managed to capture the smudge in full glowing colour, I struggled to change the settings on my camera, having forgotten to take the torch I’d packed especially for that purpose. This, combined with the cold causing the batteries to fail, led me to give up on the photography for the evening and just watch the smudge as it pulsated slowly. I’m of the opinion that sometimes one should just enjoy the moment, rather than spending the whole time trying to capture it on a camera and missing out on all the good bits, so that’s exactly what I did.

After about three-quarters of an hour or so, the clouds rolled in again and it began to snow lightly, so we headed off to try another area. Sadly the cloud was widespread so we didn’t find any clear sky, but I wasn’t too bothered. After all, I still had two more aurora trips booked with Ivar, and the weather was set to improve over the rest of the week.