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ARCTIC ADVENTURE: First Trip Report (December 2012)

Here is the first part of my trip report, which I am writing from several thousand miles away from home – high in the skies above Svalbard, Norway – around 300 miles from the North Pole, around 3,000 miles from Manchester, UK!

We have only been away from the UK for 48 hours, but all of the smog, noise and bustle feels like it is a whole lifetime away from us!

We interchanged at Oslo airport on Tuesday, and exited the rear of the plane to walk across the tarmac. We were expecting it to be cold, but had thought we would be going through the connecting doors, so went out in only a hoodie. It was minus twelve!!! Bracing, is the term that I shall use here, though I think that Oslo learnt a few new swear words that day, ha!

This trip is happening in three instalments, with us spending a few nights in Tromsø, which is in the Far North of Norway, and several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, before travelling to Svalbard for a night (which is where you find us at the moment), and then we return to Tromsø on Friday for a further 5 days, 4 nights – staying in a gorgeous Norwegian house for the remaining days.

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I think that the thing that has smacked Max and I between the eyes the most is the absolute beauty of the area. Stunning does not cover it. The whole of Tromsø is surrounded by huge mountains, some so large that in the dark, what you take as being clouds, actually later turns out to be snow peaks towering scores of miles above you.

Tromsø experiences Polar Night for much of the winter season, and this means that the sun never rises above the horizon. If you are lucky, you get a few hours of twilight in the morning (in our experience, from about 10:30 – 12:30) and then it goes back in to blackness. Breakfast by candle light is bizarre! We arrived in the darkness, and it was absolutely staggering to see the place in the twilight the following morning and see what we had not been able to truly appreciate the night before.

On our first night in Tromsø we walked a six mile round trip, and visited the Arctic Cathedral (Northernmost in the World), having to cross a MASSIVE bridge between the island and the mainland. It seriously rises to like half a mile high, and in the Arctic winds was pretty terrifying, but exhilarating!

All of the houses in Tromsø look GORGEOUS. Max and I already have several that we want to move in to, which heightens the excitement we have for a return stay. Many are wood built and very sizeable. All are decorated for Christmas, and massive illuminated stars are in most of the windows (in fact, most windows are lit to make the house inviting). We have bought a lovely Christmas star for our apartment back in Manchester.

The whole area has a lovely coating of snow. There is a fair bit of black ice about, but generally it is all good – Max has only fallen on to his bottom the once! ;-)

We made the mistake of grabbing a quick takeaway pizza on the first night for convenience – whilst it was scorching hot when we collected it, straight from the oven, by the time we had walked just five minutes in the Arctic climate, it was stone cold, and frozen. Remarkable!

The picture below shows the view from our hotel window yesterday during what we would normally consider daylight hours.

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Last night (12.12.12) we joined Guide Gunnar on a trip in his small mini-bus to chase the Northern Lights. Guide Gunnar is very widely held to be the best guide in Norway to the Aurora, and this is an opinion that I would definitely ratify!

As the weather was lovely and clear in Tromsø, we didn’t have to travel too far out of town to get to our destination. The route was about 25 miles along some scarily perilous mountain roads, that had no lighting on them, no space for two cars to pass, and a speed limit of 70kph! (yikes!!). What didn’t help was that I was sat right beside Guide Gunnar on the minibus, so you really got a driver’s eye view of the road.

I had seen a few forecasts which seemed to indicate we were in for a pretty dismal and quiet night for the Lights, however Guide Gunnar didn’t seem at all phased, and dismissed most public Aurora forecasts as nonsense – which helped to buoy my mood somewhat!

The first thing to take my breath away was the night sky itself. The air was so pure and clean, and there was not a cloud in the sky, and literally, the whole of Space was laid out in front of us. We could see thousands of stars, the Milky Way in all it’s glory, and planets such as Jupiter. There were tens of shooting stars and meteors firing off all around us, and it near literally blew my mind, as a massive space geek.

Even recounting this experience now, is making me very emotional!

We then moved to a second location where Guide Gunnar built the most amazing fire, and handed out Norwegian snacks for us to enjoy whilst we waited to see if the Tricky Lady would dance for us. We didn’t have to wait too long before we started to see feint glimmers of dull light, which I had assumed was as good as we were to get that night. I turned away for a moment to heat my hands, and then when I looked back, there the were, dazzling brightly across the night sky! I gasped in awe, quite a lot! We stayed for around 5 hours in total, until Midnight, and during this time we saw so many bursts, some times she waved at us, other times we were able to see the red colouring on the Aurora, which I am told is very rare – Guide Gunnar takes people out nightly and he only saw this three times last year.

There were also Humpback Whales in the large Norwegian Sea inlet by our shelter, and you could occasionally hear them splashing about too.

A memory that I will treasure for a lifetime.

My camera was not amazing at capturing the Aurora, tending to only capture a green glow, however Guide Gunnar is soon to share some photos that he took from the evening with the group, and you can be sure that they will be uploaded here as soon as humanly possible! They will blow you away!!

We were also lucky enough to be in a tiny group, six of us compared with the usual nine for the “comfort” tour (some got stranded at the airport by bad weather), though usually his “regular” tours can operate with up to fifteen people. Such low numbers are SO much better than joining the massive coaches that go out, and I would implore anyone considering a Northern Lights tour in Tromsø to look Guide Gunnar up!

So, that sums up the first two days, which have been so fantastic!!

My plane is just about to land in Svalbard, and the last of the light has just disappeared. Unlike Tromsø, which at least gets a tiny period of Arctic Twilight, Svalbard gets absolutely nothing during the winter months. Out of my window, I can see nothing but a massive inky blackness – there is absolutely no light whatsoever. It is currently 13:32.

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Svalbard is home to more polar bears than it is to people, and even as recently as last week, there were reports of polar bears entering the town of Longyearbyen and troubling the locals somewhat. The place is absolutely magical, and is the absolute furthest North that it is possible for a civilian to go ON THE PLANET!

There are likely a few scientists on the main Arctic continent itself, however, we are now in a minuscule percentage of people who can say they are currently the most Northernmost in the World. Epic!!

I want to ride a polar bear, but Max is currently being mean and saying “no” for some reason – something about rabies, safety and ripping hands off – I intend to wear him down!!! ;-)

As I leave the fiery red horizon behind, for me representing civilisation and the rest of the world, I look ahead in to the darkness feeling both excited and enchanted, and never wanting to return to the UK!

Truly, this is shaping up to be the trip of a lifetime, and we are still not even half way in to it yet.

I hope that all is well back in Blighty, and that all of the things that, for the moment at least, seem really important to us Brits are going as people want – up here at the top of the World, it’s incredibly difficult to relate to anything happening back home, both as the environments are so different, and owing to the wonderful sense of seclusion and isolation that such a latitude affords.

Of course, copious amounts of pictures have been taken, but unfortunately, nearly all are on my camera, as my phone and iPad cannot cope in Arctic temperatures – there will be a massive upload with pictures upon my return. Do keep an eye on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds for the occasional picture which I am posting as I go along.

Finally, thanks for all the well wishes online, it is great to hear from friends back home and I love you all for your interest in following this little adventure of mine!

Until my next post….!

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