Saturday, 2 November 2013

Leaving Tromso

I have to be honest, Tromso as a town is really nothing to write home about. It's a slightly surreal place where every other shop appears to be either a hairdressers, an opticians or a purveyor of erotic wares. The waterside is industrial rather than recreational and it's too expensive to be truly welcoming for visitors. But the experiences we've had here are outstanding. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that neither Simon nor I can move without considerable pain, the memories we've made here are priceless. This morning we only really have time for a big, fat cooked breakfast and then it's time for our ten minute taxi-ride to one of the most dramatically-located airports I've ever seen.

The Norwegian people are friendly in a rather frank and plain-speaking way and they seem really hospitable. I've noticed that curtains are left open at night, often with lights suspended in the windows, which gives a welcoming feel to the houses. They are a frugal nation, cleverly conserving resources. I was struck by the observation of our dogsledding guide who said that the Norwegians when drilling for North Sea oil marked the empty pockets they found on the sea-bed and filled them with the gas they needed to displace in order to extract oil. In contrast, the Brits burned off the gas and as a result we now have to import it from Russia and Norway.

I've enjoyed our trip and I'm so grateful to have seen the Northern Lights, which were every bit as magical as I hoped. On the flight home we begin to plot our next holiday ...

Friday, 1 November 2013

Lean in

A highlight for Alex this morning – we’re going dogsledding with Arctic Adventure Tours. This seemed like a good idea when we booked it but as it draws closer I’m really not sure about hurtling across the snow pulled by a pack of dogs! It’s an absolutely beautiful morning and as we’re driven to the venue by Per Thore we enjoy the spectacular views of the snow-topped mountains that were hidden by cloud yesterday. When we arrive at their place in the country Per's wife Hege gives us snowsuits and boots to wear and we're taken out to the kennels to meet some of the dogs. Then a very brief instruction session, and we’re off!

Alex is paired with Per, Simon and I share a sled and there are also a couple of Aussie guys and a Mexican mother and son. As soon as the ropes are untied from the trees the dogs are off – 5 per sled, all wearing little booties on their rear paws to protect them. Simon is driving first and finds it quite a struggle to keep his feet securely on the runners and also operate the brake. The driver is meant to put their weight on the inside runner through a turn, and you both lean in to the curve. But when the track is at an angle you’re supposed to compensate by leaning the other way. Sometimes these two things happen simultaneously so it’s difficult to maintain equilibrium. Added to that, the track is bumpy and it’s hard to keep your feet rooted to the runners when the sled bounces, especially when they get snow on them. Finally, there has been little snow so some of the track was pure ice and other parts just boggy ground. It was inevitable that we’d come off – we managed to turn the sled over and it landed on top of me which was a bit of a shock. Simon managed to get it the right way up and hold the dogs back for long enough for us both to get back on and we managed to keep it together until the instructor stopped and suggested we changed places.
If I thought being a passenger was tough, being the driver was so much harder. The runners are narrow and the brake sits between them. The idea is that you transfer your weight from runner to brake but it’s not that easy when you’re travelling at speed across very uneven ground. You need to keep your knees flexed and maintain pressure on the handrail at all times. It’s ridiculously tiring and quite stressful, as the dogs just keep running unless you have enough pressure on the brake to hold them back – which is basically your entire body weight. My first stint of driving went fairly smoothly  but the hard work took its toll. The second time I took over driving I was too tired to control the sled properly and we had a couple of disasters. I managed to tip the sled over and couldn’t work out how to get it upright and still maintain pressure on the brake, so the dogs took off with Simon and I had to do the walk of shame to catch up with them after Per had saved him. Then we both managed to come off. Fortunately we were not the only ones – the Aussies were nicknamed “Crash” and “Crash”!

We were so relieved when we saw our starting point come back into view. Needless to say Alex had neither fallen off nor lost control and seemed to be a born dogsledder. We were invited into a little hut with an open fire and pumpkin lantern for coffee, tea or hot chocolate and the ubiquitous (and delicious!) chocolate cake and then driven back to Tromso, arriving just before sunset at around 2pm.
After a brief visit to the apartment to remove some layers and eat some leftover pasta, we set off for the photographic museum which had some fascinating exhibits about the relationship between Russian sailors and Tromso, and some interesting contrasts of Tromso past and present. We continued to the Kunstmuseum which had varied exhibits including some representations of Sami myths and legends and some impressive paintings of various regions of Norway, as well as some more modern works that left us a bit baffled.

Dinner tonight is chicken curry, using some of the ingredients we brought with us. It’s such a lovely clear night that I want to go out and look for the Aurora. As we leave the apartment we look up and I swear I can just see the unmistakable ribbon in the sky above our heads. Down at the waterside, the boys lose interest long before I do and I stay behind until the cold forces me back to the apartment. The following day I overhear a conversation that suggests that despite the beautifully clear weather, there was little auroral activity.