Northern Lights 2016 by Hurtigruten Ferry.
The trip was cancelled in January because of ship failure, and was rebooked for November.
I had my doubts back at the end of January when two days before our trip was due to start, the ship was still adjacent to the dry dock at Bremerhaven. It's a day and a half voyage to Bergen from there. Later I watched its lack of progress on a website and could see that it would never have made the scheduled departure time at Bergen but then it broke down enroute and had to be towed into port.
29th January 2016 In the meantime I was on my way from Heathrow and what a flight it was. Storm Gertrude had arrived and was battering the Norwegian Coast. We got to within a few feet of the tarmac when a gust forced the pilot to abort the landing and we had to go around. It was all very bumpy. The landing was sucessful the second time around and there was relieved clapping as we taxied to the terminal. We were then told we were being taken to an hotel rather than the ship. Some knew that the ship hadn't made it, others hadn't received any news up to that point. Then followed two days of chaos. The upshot was that the astronomy cruise was cancelled. Some passengers waited for another ship to do the standard trip, others who were part way into a longer itinery had no option but to make thetr way on to their next departure point. Me, I went home after spending two nights in Bergen. I was picked up by Doreen who promptly went on a winter break to Tenerife. Then I was refunded all of my costs and promptly rebooked.
...fast forward to...
18th November 2016 Friday evening. Guess what? Storms are forecast! The M3 will be closed between J3 and the M25 for a bridge demolition and it is going to be raining on Sunday, joy!
The plan: The scheduled Hurtigruten ferries make the trip up the coast of Norway to the port of Kirkenes and then return to Bergen the round trip taking twelve days. It is described as the world's most beautiful voyage. The trip is scheduled to visit thirty or so intermediate ports and harbours in each direction along the 1,500 mile route. I should also mention that Doreen and I have been to many of these places before, both on a cruise (2002) and in our motorcaravan (2006) see links at the end, but, because Doreen is not that interested in being bounced around or being cold, I am on my own.
The Astronomy voyage is not much different to the normal round trip apart from the fact that perhaps around 80 of the passsengers on board are more interested in the night sky than the actual passage, also in these high latitudes and in late November much of it will be in darkness. We will be led by Dr John Mason, who as well as describing what we can see outside will also be giving lectures. There is also a visit to a planetarium in Tromso.
Only two of the ferries are big enough to accomodate all of us outside on the rear deck where the bright ships lights will be turned off. We will be on MS Trollfjord which is the sister ship to Midnatsol which couldn't make it last time.
19th November The weather forecast on the BBC was dire last night but seems to have moderated a bit this morning so fingers crossed. The daily outward schedule (not mentioning all of the the ports) is as follows:
- 20th Nov. Leave Bergen 22.30
- 21st Alesund
- 22nd Trondheim
- 23rd Cross Arctic circle, Lofoten Islands
- 24th Tromso
- 25th Nordkapp
- 26th Kirkenes
The same ports are visited on the return but at a different time of day. This means that ports that were visited in the wee small hours on the way up will be in the afternoon on the way back and some of them will be in daylight! This is a voyage north but it is also a voyage east and we will go to longitudes further east than Istanbul or Cairo
Day 1 20th November 2016
Well with storm Angus in UK, the M3 closed between junctions 3-2 and a long delay at Heathrow it was not an auspicious beginning. However, we arrived at Bergen airport after a good smooth flight and that included the final landing approach. Came to Hurtigruten by bus, the main tunnel into Bergen seemed much longer than in January (since confirmed that it has been extended).
On board by 4pm after the safety briefing. Bought the thick book of the cruise for 300NOK in the on-board shop and bought a coffee for 32NOK. Note that to get a rough idea of price divide by ten and call it £s. Decided that the offered excursions were too expensive for me and declined most of them (see later), also as previously stated I have been to the coast of Norway, as far as Nordkapp, before so they were not so interesting for me. So this is an excursion-lite blog
Alongside at Bergen
Dinner with 'Quiet' Dave from Australia and Frank and Chris plus two German ladies from Stuttgart whose names I was told but being Swabian they had names I didn't recognise or then remember. I met so many people on this cruise and at my age I don't always remember names so if you are reading this and you haven't got a mention then at least I haven't said anything bad about you. I am supposed to be on table 57 onto which people travelling alone were put. We named it the rejects table.
After an introduction to the ships officers by the captain Brynjard Ulvøy (and a sales pitch from the excursion manager), Dr John Mason and Eva gave a briefing to those on the astronomy voyage. The role of John is easily explained, he is the scientist, an astrophysicist, he gives the lectures and guides us over the night sky on the open deck. Eva has a more wide ranging job basically resonsible for keeping us amused and occupied. She is also the warm up act for John's lectures giving a reading each night from a funny book about Norwegians. John noted that she is responsible for anything below the Aurora eg clouds. I met Inger again, who was John's sidekick back in January (not coming as she is a new grandmother). We sailed at 22.35 from 60º23'N 5º18'E.
Day 2 21st Passed the first port, Florø, whilst asleep, woke at about 6am for the approach to Måløy in darkness. Early breakfast then watched dawn rise as we travelled through Ulvesundet and Sildegapet.
Enroute to Ålesund
Bought postcards in the shop, came to Torvik then lunch and Ålesund. At the majority of ports like Florø Måloy and Torvik we are scheduled to stop for only 15 minutes or so, long enough for a few passengers to come or go and a pallet or two of cargo to be unloaded. It was noticeable that this time was often extended by our early arrival. At Ålesund there was a 'Walk with Eva', at many ports Eva does an impromptu and most importantly free walk for those of the astronomy group not on a booked excursion. Some of you might note that Eva or EVA stands for extra vehicular activity in NASA parlance. Jane, from our motorhome group, has Norwegian relatives who come from Ålesund so I was taking photographs for her.
Eva (in white coat)
I had a short sleep then a lecture about exploring the arctic night sky, which I nearly missed because I was sleepy. Molde at 18.00, have to say although I was here in 2006 I didn't recognise it. Dinner at 18.30. Went on deck with binos at 20.30 and was shown (twice) how to view the Andromeda galaxy. Then as John Mason went below for his camera we saw the northern lights between 21.25 to 21.40. Vertical sheets from a coronal arc, very clear and quite dynamic. Well this was unusually early in the voyage but as John had said, it can happen at any time. Coffee then bed whilst the ship was alongside at Kristiansund. At the end of day two having been sailing 24 hours we are now about 63ºN and 8ºE.
I didn't have my camera to hand but we will be receiving official photographs before long so I will put one or two here. I have to say that my aurora photographs overall were a disappointment
Day 3 22nd Got up early to look for Jupiter but we were already approaching the lights of Trondheim and I couldn't see it, plus it was overcast and had been raining. Snowed during breakfast. Met Ros and Chris, two lovely ladies from Tassie (Tasmania). Went for a walk in Trondheim to the Nidros cathedral in the falling wet snow with Eva et al but came back by a different route and with a smaller group Ruth, Andrew and Jo, lost a gripper sole. Jacket let the wet in and I was soaked through by the time I got back to the ship. Dried it out on the heated shower floor.
At Nidaros Cathedral and Bridge of Happiness
Lovely cruise out of Trondheim after lunch but lots of cloud cover. Saw some coronal display after dinner but went to bed at 21.30 after Rorvik. Woken up by announcement of Northern Lights shortly afterwards. Lots of lights but lots of cloud as well. Most then went below again but at 22.15 or thereabouts there was a short lived display right overhead which I managed to photograph. Went to bed just after 23.00,
(There had been a good view of Orion with Saiph (the bottom left star of Orion) just clear of the local hills at my bedtime.) by the way Eva had encouraged the astronomy group not to stick to our reserved dinner tables but to mix it up. This was fine except that it confused the waiting staff over those on special diets so by night 3 most of us were still moving around but those on special diets were staying put.
Day 4 23rd During the night we stopped at three minor ports then we crossed the Arctic circle at 07.15. Breakfast with Ros and Chris, I didn't know they had been to witness the actual crossing but they were buzzing with that and with the yesterday's snow. Later, (in daylight) some went out on deck 9 to meet Neptune and have champagne and an icy shower.
Arctic Circle and Neptune (from Ros)
I especially enjoyed the approach through the islands to Ørnes, one of the most spectacular legs on the Hurtigruten route. Saw part of what I thought was the Svartisen glacier near Meløysund but on later investigation believe it to be Glombreen. Ørnes is on the RV 17, which we drove south along in 2006 and there is an impressive 7km tunnel under the Svartisen glacier nearby.
Glacier and mountains
This morning we had a lecture about planets, not much I didn't already know but as usual John presented it in a concise and entertaining matter. From questions asked it's clear to me that there is a wide range of knowledge levels in the group, varying right down to those who know very little about the night sky.
I now had a dilemma. My coat had dried out ok in time for last night's extended time on deck so should I just risk it, and not get a new one. I had seen what was available in the on-board shop and as expected the nice ones were expensive but we were coming into Bodø so I might be able to get something more affordable. Eva's walk would take us to a shopping mall and she offered to take me to a sports shop where I might find something suitable. She took me to a sports shop but the only coat I fancied/could afford wasn't available in my size. Then on my own I found other shops which included one with a 50% Black Friday offer. So I was happy buying a coat for 1000NOK but happier still when it became 500NOK. Leaving Bodø we crossed open sea to Lofoten.
Arriving slightly late for dinner meant that this night I was on a table of five with Tony an urbane educated man whose conversation was peppered with such comments as "to cut a long story short", which comment he would then entirely ignore. Some who know me would say this is the pot calling the kettle black, but I assure you I was not in his league.
Although cloudy we could see lots of activity and from time to time the displays were excellent. The regretable part of this cruise is that we don't get to see Lofoten in daylight. I could only show others my photos from 2006. Whilst we were in the area we passed the MS Finnmark and the bridge officers decided to play light-sabers with their searchlights. I won't repeat what was said as the Finnmark illuminated the rear of deck 9 and destroyed our night vision.
At around 23.30 we stopped at the mouth of Trollfjord. Unfortunately the temperature was hovering about zero degrees which brings the prospect of avalanches. As the fjord is only 88m wide and the ship is 22m wide we are prohibited from going in under such conditions. The bridge searchlights were shone into the fjord.
This view from Deck 9 panorama lounge.
We called at Stamsund before dinner, Svolvær after dinner and Stokmarknes, Sortland, and Risøyhamn during the night. About 68ºN 15ºE
Day 5 24th November, Thanksgiving day. Arrived at Harstad before breakfast which I spent chatting with Ros and making more notes for this blog. I have been thinking about a future trip to Norway in our motorcaravan. For certain there would be no need to go further North than Harstad. Then perhaps a short day/night cruise on Hurigruten perhaps Stamsund to Harstad and return. The lecture at around lunchtime was about observing the Northern Lights, this after three days of doing just that!
Tromso was a bit of a disappointment for me again! the planetarium visit included a film about capturing the aurora and a presentation about the northern sky including the constellations as perceived by the norse peoples but the visit was mainly about childish games (albeit scientific ones), there was a faint aurora directly overhead at one point and we all piled out to see it.
Ros guiding ball through hoop
Different table at dinner I was with Tim John and Debbie. Tim and his father John, who I believe was 87, seem to be doing his father's bucket list in some style. Debbie is a freelance journalist who is writing an article about Hurtigruten for the Telegraph. This evening between the first and second sitting there was the captain's lecture on lighthouses and Hurtigruten ships. He basically provided a commentary to a series of pictures which did not seem to have an overall structure, It did leave me with one question 'Why so many iron lighthouses?' I still haven't found an answer to that one, we have iron light houses around Great Britain's shores but they are small structures (we also exported them around the empire) the ones in Norway are huge.
Went to bed early but went out for an hour as we approached Skjervøy very good Northern Lights with more colours.
As you can see I was experimenting with a fish eye lens
I met some Americans (USA) unhappy that there was no mention of, or special meal for, Thanksgiving. Should have said something on the lines of why should there be, no one cares about it in Europe. I have corrected my bad thoughts about this in today's heading.
Day 6 25th It is now very dark for most of the day even when it is not night it is only twilight and there are some beautiful blue skies.
Near Havøsund. Moon and Jupiter in conjunction.
The morning was mostly twilight unless you looked south where there was a thin strip of daylight. During the night we had called at Oksfjord. Hammerfest and we were at Havøysund after breakfast.
I went for a walk in Honningsvåg and tried a few shops. I toyed with the idea of buying a man bag but thought I would check it out on the internet first. It was slightly under half the the local price! I had also looked at buying some blank business cards to give out with my blog and email address- 1006NOK i.e. £100 for 8 sheets of A4 card. I thought I was being ripped off in Rymans when they wanted £9.99 for similar. I promise no more moaning about Norwegian prices.
One thing that interested me was that in a little souvenir shop near the dock they were selling memorabilia for the film "Dinner for one" Now this is the British comedy that gets shown on German TV every New Years eve since the 1960's. I have since found out that it is a staple on Norwegian TV as well. Although nothing would surprise me about Norwegian TV, in my experience it is dire. The film however is very funny you can catch it on youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lzQxjGL9S0
At Honningsvåg we saw women pushing these sledges that look like a speedy zimmerframes or shopping basket on runners they can get up to quite a speed on one in the downhill stretches and sometimes a small child is sat on the seat clutching the groceries. We passed Finnkirka a Sámi sacrificial site lit up with coloured light beams. I didn't understand the significance of the mention of fisherman over the PA loudspeaker but apparently king crab fishermen came aboard to share their catch with us. I found Finnkirka difficult to visualise or indeed photograph at night so here is a picture of it in daylight. King crab are huge (from wiki: Red king crabs can be very large, sometimes reaching a carapace width of 28 cm (11 in) and a leg span of 1.8 m (5.9 ft). It was named after the color it turns when it is cooked rather than the color of a living animal, which tends to be more burgundy. ) and an ecological disaster so there are no restrictions on fishing them.
There was a 45min delay leaving Kjellefjord due to the amount of cargo being loaded. Saw a great Northern Light display in the early evening around 8pm near Mehamn. John Mason was bouncing up and down in excitement, so it must have been good.
Day 7 26th, Half Way We have caught up to our schedule in the night, only 5mins late leaving Vadsø this morning. We have arrived at Kirkenes at 9am it is -8C. Many of the passengers went on a coach trip to the Russian border 15m away. We went on a walk with Eva into the town centre where we were directed to the Salvation Army charity shop and the cheap shop 'Nille'
Kirkenes: note signs in Russian
En route we saw that there is a business erecting outside lights for advent/Christmas. The Germans torched the town before retreating, so many of the houses there were built quickly and cheaply during the short Russian occupation and after the war although they are often painted in bright colours. The town has a statue to the Soviet soldiers.
Decorations on houses and trees in Norway tend to be restrained and lights white. Often there is just an illuminated star in a window. There are festive Trolls and 'Nisse' Norwegian elves in the trees. I bought a Nisse diy kit for Doreen to make and a Nisse as a travelling companion for me. She sat on my table until the gale whereupon she slid onto the chair. All made it back to UK.
As I've said before there is something special about the twilight at these latitudes. On my solitary walk back to the ship I tried to capture this in the following panoramas:
So now we are going back, I didn't realise how many had left the ship at Kirkenes until I saw that tonights dinner only had one sitting. We spent an hour in Vardø which is Norway's most easterly town, slightly over 31 degrees East and near the most easterly part of our trip. When leaving Vardø we were able to watch a film about the Pomors and the towns historical connection with the Russians of the White Sea area. In Vardø there was the opportunity to 'swim' or rather 'dunk' in the Barents Sea. There was also a fort. Snow off and on for the evening.
Day 8, 27th. Sea a bit lumpy through the night and at breakfast. This morning when I looked at the programme sheet it said '06.30 departure from Alta'. Now I have been to Alta and it's many 'klicks' to the SE of Hammerfest and as far as I know it is not visited by Hurtigruten ships. Well we departed from somewhere at 06.30 but for sure it wasn't Alta Later there was a new edition of the sheet and it just said 'departure' without mentioning from where. Not sure of what ports we stopped at during the night. At this stage I noted not all ports were mentioned on the daily sheets. However the reverse of our astronomy sheet gave a complete list, so it was probably Honningsvåg that we left from.
Approach to Hammerfest
I have noticed that everywhere up here seems to have been awarded a superlative e.g. Hammerfest is the northernmost town, (what about Honningsvåg and Vardø, well you can be sure they have some appellation too). Went on an Eva walk, Ros did snow angels, they don't have snow low down in Tasmania and this was her first opportunity to find some virgin snow, then we went to a church and a Polar bear museum/shop.
Hammerfest was said to be where polar bears roamed the streets. Not exactly true but two cubs were brought up as pets and walked around on leads. You can join: The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society known in Norwegian as the Isbjørnklubben. Its neither royal nor ancient but a bit of tourist fun.
Into Oksfjord, by now in darkness, then on to Skjervøy and it was a bit rough on that leg. There was quite a bit of snow and it was snowing when I went on deck at 10pm or so but I stayed around for the clouds to clear albeit briefly and for an NL display. Liz, who I had talked to most early mornings on the deck 6 viewing spot, introduced herself. Tromso was our next stop and there was to be a midnight concert in the cathedral but it was mostly Grieg so this was another excursion I missed. I understand it was very good and atmospheric.
Day 9, 28th Monday Breakfast with Ros and Chris who were up early to catch the excursion across land from Harstad to Sortland whilst we sail around, going through the Risøyrenna a 4.5km long dredged channel. Denny and Rodney then joined me for an extended breakfast So I had a first and second breakfast, hobbit style. Wonderful twilight this morning as we go through the islands to the N of Lofoten.
Dredged chanel approaching Risøyhamn 10am
We arrived at where Hurtigruten began, Stockmarknes, in the early afternoon. We were encouraged to buy tickets for the Hurtigruten museum whilst on board 50NOK. However the time available to visit was far too short (the ship was only in port for an hour) and we barely got a glimpse of the exhibits much less walk around the Finnmarken the ship on land outside.
Lounge on board Finnmarken
Day 10, 29th We had been told a day or so earlier about stormy seas to come, some thought that last night was the night and commented that it wasn't too bad. I thought they should be left in ignorance for the moment but later they came to realise that that wasn't the windy night, that is to come tonight. What we did have at 04.20 was a general alarm you know seven short blasts, etc it was followed almost immediately with announcements cancelling it in Norwegian and English followed some minutes later with the announcement in German. By which time I expect the Germans had reached the muster stations and had joined in the contest with the Chinese for life jackets.
We crossed the arctic circle heading south this morning and those attending the ceremony and who purchased champagne were also given a spoonful of cod or halibut oil to celebrate! They were also given their inscribed spoon.
We were told later in our astronomy lecture that the position of the circle varies over time dependent on the relationship of the earths axis to the earth's orbit. So the symbol on the small island that we passed is in the wrong place. Currently the arctic circle is moving north at 4cm per year. This was covered in last session with John which was a question and answer one covering black holes, emergent gravity etc these lectures were well worth it on their own. Not to mention finding out all about Norwegians from Eva.
So tonight is the storm or to be more accurate a gale or perhaps a severe gale.
It had got lumpier as we approached Rørvik but, as predicted, 45 minutes after leaving Rørvik we hit the first large waves in open sea. It felt more uncomfortable than dangerous, there was a report of an injury or two but we were not met by a fleet of ambulances as we arrived more or less unscathed this morning in Trondheim. I was also 'told' that the ship has suffered some slight damage but this turned out to be some cladding removed for planned maintenance and a crazed window that was already damaged.
The only casualty noted.
I am told it was 53mph plus unspecified gusts so a severe gale force 9. The wind was stronger, storm force 10, just above Lofoten but this was on facebook so needs to be treated with scepticism.
Day 11 30th This is the day of my only excursion. I will be leaving the ship at Kristiansund and rejoining at Molde. In between I will be going over the Atlantic Highway to a marble mine. I can tell you from my earlier experiences that the 7.8km long Atlantic highway is not the spectacular road that travel writers would have you believe...and that is doubly so in the dark!
The trip was very good the people were knowledgeable and helpful but it was expensive at 1790NOK. The visit comprised a short drive into the mine where we transferred to barges driven by small electric outboard motors and went a short distance further in where we sampled water directly from the rocks. We returned by barge to a larger hall where we were given soup and shown a film about the operation of the mine most of the marble is crushed to make filler for expensive glossy magazines.
1st December arrival Bergen
We had to leave our cabins by 10am and it was a bit boring. From time to time the sea was a little lumpy. Departing the ship worked like clockwork but the airport was a bit chaotic many people had difficulty with the self boarding and luggage check in
Market research at Flesland airport with the London bound contingent gave overall marks out of 10 at about 8 but a resounding 10/10 for the astronomy portion. My impressions, well where to start?
First of all the Northern lights. They were far more impressive than I had imagined, I had thought that there was a lot of hype. We saw them on 8 of the 11 nights and although cloud often prevailed what the cloud didn't obscure was impressive. If you are reading this after the 'official photos' have been attached you will probably concur, but to reiterate, seeing them for yourselves makes the real emotional connection.
Secondly Twilight. I hadn't known about this. In an early lecture, where I had trouble keeping awake, John explained how the hours of twilight increase as you go further North. This is due to the angle the sun makes with the horizon. At the equator twilight may only last 20 minutes at the poles it lasts two weeks. Whatever your understanding of this the effect is marvellous an eerie blue light lasting many hours.
The astronomy element. First rate, there were technical problems with the audio/visual displays in the lecture theatre and John had to have his laptop repaired but otherwise it was faultless.
The Cruise. Much higher quality than I was expecting I just thought it was a ferry. My cabin was a bit tired and I missed not having a TV where I could for example see a bridge camera which is a standard feature on cruises. Food was good and the staff were excellent. The excursions were overpriced and being welcomed to a wonderful day every time the excursion manager spoke over the PA was just too camp.
Arrival back in UK Given what happened back in January I was almost unsurprised when we aborted our first landing at Heathrow, there was a problem with an aircraft in front of us and they needed to urgently inspect the runway!
The 2006 trip franksblog.webnode.com/blog/norway-sweden-2006/