independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Travel: Seeing the light in northern Norway

Tromsø, Norway

BREATHTAKING: The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, are described as spellbinding and surreal, but a sighting isn’t always guaranteed. Photo: Jonathan McCrea

The 21st of January is a special sort of day in Tromso. In each of the local schools, the children get together to sing traditional songs and bake little cakes called 'sonbolle', a sugar pastry filled with raspberry jam. This celebration isn't religious or historical; it marks the end of Morketid, the period of unending dark, and is the day the population of this northern Norwegian town welcome back the sun. It hasn't been seen here for two whole months.

Tromso is a thriving city of 70,000 people, situated on an island on the northern coast of Norway. I have travelled here to spend four nights chasing the spectacle of the Northern Lights, a dream of mine since I was a teenager. The Lights, or Aurora Borealis as Galileo named them, are bands of coloured light that appear in the sky as a result of the energy released when particles from the sun (solar winds) collide into our atmosphere. It is Earth's magnetic field that guides these winds to the North and South Poles and this is why Tromso is one of the best places in the world to witness the greatest light show on the planet.

It may surprise you to learn then that it is only in recent years that the city has seen any significant tourism, which many attribute not to the advent of multimedia internet, cheaper air travel or the solar cycle, but rather to AbFab star and TV queen Joanna Lumley who shot a documentary here almost a decade ago. Like some sort of pagan goddess, you can't get into a taxi without the driver mentioning her name in reverent tones.

The good news is that you don't have to spend your days twiddling your thumbs waiting for the deep dark of night to fall. Despite the lack of direct sunlight, you can get a good five hours of bright dusk-like dawn in mid January, so there's plenty of time to wrap up warm and take in the breathtaking beauty of the Norwegian great outdoors.

If you are planning to see some of the countryside while you're in Tromso, there's only one way to travel. Tore Albrigtsen offers a full day of sledding by Alaskan husky, and there are probably few people in the world better suited to the task. Tore is the original action man. At age 12, he tried dog-sledding as a sport and fell in love. Three years later his mother, fed up with the constant barking and continuous upkeep, gave him an ultimatum: his family or the dogs. He chose the dogs. Since then, he has skied across Alaska solo in near record time, he has crossed Alaska on husky and taken on the Seven Summits Challenge. Once we have geared up for the -15C weather, Tore takes us down to meet the dogs, all 70 of them.

Each dog is positioned in the pack according to its nature. Lead dogs need to be obedient, wheel dogs are directly in front of the sleigh and used for their strength, and swing dogs set the pace. Tore yells all of this above the piercing whines of the huskies, all of whom look like they are about to snap out of their reins, so eager are they to head out for the day.

We start out with a beginner's tally of six dogs per sled. One passenger sits in the sled while the other drives, although that implies some level of control over the dogs, who need little encouragement to go and all your physical strength to stop. It was all I could do to hold on for dear life and we were barely hitting 20kmph.

"Can you feel the power?", shouts Tore as we belt down the fjord, ducking under tree branches. "Imagine what it's like with 16 dogs. It's better than sex," he screams. I rather imagine Putin would go for this sort of thing.

Despite his bravado, Tore is a man who has an unwavering respect for the cold, having lost the tips of his fingers during a snowstorm.

"I was on an expedition in the Andes when our group got hit by a freak hurricane, completely exposed. Our tents were whipped away and with the wind factor it was minus 70. That hurts, I can tell you. I had to descend the mountain to get shelter and I came across an Irishman who had lost his headlamp and was wandering about completely lost. I guided him down to safety, but I knew that I had been exposed for too long. Ten people died that day." It was a stark reminder of the dangers of being unprepared for the cold and I was glad he had kept this story until we were safely back in the cabin.

What little light we had was gone, and we were greeted back at the hotel by Vidar Dons Lindrupsen, a local press photographer who moonlights as a tour guide for the Northern Lights. He drove me to his cabin where he instructed the assembled group on the basics of night-time photography. Vidar speaks perfect English and, like many Norwegians we've met, has come to embrace the long winters here.

"When I go out to the mountains, I like to turn off my headlamp and just close my eyes for a little while, so I can remember the dark," he says wistfully. He weaves through the group, calibrating our cameras to take full advantage of the night sky while doling out tips on how to frame our shots and stay warm.

We bundled into the minivan and headed to a place called Asheim on Grotfjord, a small fjord surrounded by mountains about 40 minutes from the city centre. Aurorae aside, the landscape is striking: a blanket of snow covers the long beach under our feet that borders a completely still lake. All around us, the snow-capped peaks of mountains shimmer in the moonlight and a full complement of stars are spread out above us. It is perfectly quiet, and couldn't be a better night for hunting the Lights, and yet three full hours pass with absolutely no sign. We swap jokes and anecdotes in the dark, jogging on the spot and swinging our hands to stay warm, like pitch-side substitutes waiting for a referee's whistle.

It's completely deflating. From the moment you touch down in Tromso, you are warned that this is the risk that you take when you travel to witness a natural phenomenon. With aurorae, you are not just dependent on a clear sky; you're also at the mercy of the sun. Vidar smiles and advises us to be philosophical about it: "There's nothing we can do but wait and see, we are at the mercy of nature." He points out the North Star, which is, of course, almost directly above us at this latitude. He paints constellations and traces invisible galaxies with his finger, but the group is getting impatient. Conviviality can only last so long in the freezing cold.

We load back into the minivan, weaving through the tree-lined, winding roads in search of a better vantage point. This is why they call it hunting the Northern Lights, rather than watching, and some expeditions can last up to eight hours as guides frantically try to deliver the promise of the brochure. Our next destination, Rekvikeidet, gives us an unrestricted panoramic view of the entire sky, but was looking to be equally disappointing until we noticed the faintest plume of what looked to be green smoke in the north. It grew, slowly at first and then erupted out of the mountain below like a volcano. Within 10 minutes, the entire sky was alive, with a halo of dancing light flitting across the horizon as far as we could see.

It was spellbinding, surreal; unlike anything I have ever seen. Some of the people in our group were shouting with joy at the sight and, in truth, it was difficult not to be moved by the sheer size and beauty of it.

Even understanding the science and mechanism doesn't quite explain away what we witnessed. It is unthinkable that you might travel all this way and miss out on such a show, but I was one of the lucky ones. Northern Norway is big country, and the gods had smiled upon my trip at every turn.

  • Jonathan McCrea presents Futureproof, Saturdays on Newstalk 106-108fm

FLIGHTS

Fly to Tromso with Norwegian Airlines or SAS via Oslo for around €349pp.

ACTIVITIES

Project-Travel are the specialists for Norwegian travel and provide activity holidays starting from €1369pp (flight, accommodation and 3 activities). Tours specifically cater for the Northern Lights tourist and can include dog-sledding, whale watching, dinner cruises and 3 night round trips to Kirkenes in the very northern part of Norway. See project-travel.ie for more details.

TAKE THREE

1. Spa treatment

For a spa treatment with a difference, a three-hour trip on the Vulkana is hard to beat. It looks like any other fishing boat, but you'll find a hot tub on the bow, which gives you a captain's view as you sail around the stunning fjords near Tromsø. There's a wood-fired sauna too and, if you are brave enough to jump off the diving board into the icy depths below, you'll be rewarded with a hearty bowl of fish soup and some freshly baked bread in front of an open fire.

2. Dining

Emma's is about as close as you can get to Michelin star dining in Tromsø, and it comes with the appropriate price tag. The starter of Bounafish is around €20 and a bit like a traditional Irish stew made with cabbage and carrots, cod and bacon, and is delicious for all its plainness. For main, try the fillet of reindeer: it's halfway between beef and venison, tender and not too overbearing in taste. As an aperitif, try the cloudberry liqueur, which tastes as good as it sounds.

3. Whale watching

Chaz Walker is a skipper from Hartlepool, who moved to Kvaløya (Whale Island) after years of hauling in empty nets. Now he takes visitors on a three-hour trip around the fjord in search of the ocean's giants. It's one of the few places in the world that you can see fin, humpback and killer whales together and I was lucky enough to see all three in one afternoon. The enormous shining back of a fin whale heaving out of the water is a sight I'll never forget.

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