Northern Lights

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December 26th 2012
Published: March 24th 2013
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Northern LightsNorthern LightsNorthern Lights

Aussie Dave took this photo (as well as five others on this blog entry) and was kind enough to share them with the tour group.
It’s Christmas Eve 2012, and I am on a tour bus in Northern Scandinavia going from Kiruna, Sweden, to Inari, Finland. It is about -25 degrees outside which is a little warmer than it was yesterday, although ice is starting to form on the inside the bus, by the window I am sitting next to. Yes, it is cold, but we keep ourselves warm by having some fun conversation with our fellow tour-goers. Most of them are Australian couples, although there are a few Kiwis thrown in the mix too. They’re all good people and good chats, fun people to be spending long coach journeys with.

We eventually arrive at what our tour operator describes as a "resort". I suppose technically it is a resort, as it is a winter leisure complex of sorts where you can do all sorts of activities, the sort of which we would be doing during our stay. The place is quite comfortable and they put on breakfast and dinner for you in their huge dining hall. It feels like a retreat you would bring school camps or team building do’s to.

There wasn’t much doing that night given we were in the middle
The Brightest OneThe Brightest OneThe Brightest One

The guy in the photo played Santa that night - he is another Aussie Dave, different to the one that took this photo.
of nowhere. After dinner, about a third of the tour group play drinking games, starting off with beer pong before bouncing coins; taking turns to bounce a coin into a cup of beer and then ordering the person of your choice to scull the contents should you be successful. Drinking games are always fun although I was the one getting picked on that night - probably because I was getting a lot of coins in and distributing my drinking penalties evenly amongst everyone, meaning everyone had something against me when they eventually got a coin in. A victim of my own success.

Now I have had some good Christmas Days over the years but probably none as cool as this - literally.
We started the day with some cross-country skiing.
I’ve only ever skied once before in my life, when working on a mountain in Colorado during university - I’m more of a snowboarder. I didn’t find it easy then, but with practice I think I would’ve picked it up relatively quickly. Cross-country skiing however, presented no such challenge.
After a short lesson with our Greek instructor - who would’ve thought that I would meet Thais, a Geordie, a Lebanese pizza-maker, and a Greek
The Light ShowThe Light ShowThe Light Show

It feels a bit weird putting photos of other people taken by other people for other people, on my blog - but I just had to include those swirls in the background. Photo: Aussie Dave.
ski instructor in the northern reaches of Scandinavia - we were ready to hit the trails. Cross-country skiing on the flats has a lot more in common with ice-skating in terms of your body movement than it does with skiing - until you hit a downhill slope.
The problem with cross-country skis is that they are a lot narrower than normal skis so it is harder to maintain your balance, which is crucial when whizzing down a hill. There was a slope near the end of the trail that pretty much everyone fell down on while attempting to ski down it. I almost busted my camera in the process.
Your prize for falling over here however, was to wait for others to hit the slope and watch them fall down too. Slapstick never gets old. There were steeper slopes on the way back to the lodge, including one that almost took you right into the building. Sadly, I wasn’t able to stay on my feet the whole way down this one either.
Overall though, it was a good morning - it was more fun than I thought it would be and you can pick up some good speed once you
The CrewThe CrewThe Crew

Aussie Dave captures half the tour group against the lights. Remember that this was pretty much taken in the dark, which is testament to Dave's camera.
master the technique. It was so peaceful and quiet in the woods too, and the snow made for some great scenery. Plus, it was good exercise to the point where you had to slow down a bit so you didn’t sweat too much, because in these conditions your sweat would freeze almost instantly and would make you very cold. A great activity to do alone or with your mates.

After lunch we then tried our hand at ice fishing and snow-shoeing.
The walk to the lake is a fair one, so we all chucked on some snowshoes to get out there. The snow gets really deep in these parts, to the point where if you hit a deep patch, you literally have to swim your way out of it. I know from snowboarding experience just how hard it can be to get out of some deep snow - every step you take takes you deeper into the snow until you’re drowning in it.
Not in the snowshoes. Like mini-snowboards that you strap to your feet, the snowshoes massively increase the surface area of your feet and no patch of snow is a match for them. No longer did I
Lisa & JamesLisa & JamesLisa & James

I probably got along with these two the best on the bus. Look at those lights!
have to stick to the paths, I could run amok off-piste, amongst the trees. It was so liberating, I felt like Legolas. Good fun.
When we got to the lake the first thing we had to do was drill a hole in the ice with our ice drill. We took turns rotating the drill and both times I had the honour of breaking the ice and hitting the water. Good manly fun. We then put some bait on our fishing rods before lowering them into the hole. The fishing rods were tiny - they were made of plastic and could well have been toys. They were never in danger of being broken however, as we never got a bite let alone a fish. The Greek guy at the lodge said that there are very few fish in the lake these days and then anything you do catch would probably have to be thrown back in. It sounded like you should buy a lottery ticket if you did catch one.

After the fishing, it was then time for the activity I had been dreading ever since I signed up to the tour - an ice swim.
It’s only -27 degrees
Cross-Country SkiingCross-Country SkiingCross-Country Skiing

Sag follows John and Joy onto the trail.
outside, why don’t we go for a dip?
To avoid people getting hypothermia from doing it however, participants first need to partake in another Scandinavian tradition - a sauna.
Joy had fallen a little ill so it was probably best for her not to do this, but the rest of us trundled on down to the sauna, all of us a bit nervous about what we were about to do.
Already in the sauna when we arrived were some of the other girls on the tour. Having already warmed up before us, their moment of truth would arrive before ours. There wasn’t too much conversation in the meantime - it felt a bit like death row. Then Jodine, a fellow Kiwi, decided to be the first girl to face her fate, and we wish her good luck. About two minutes later she was back - wet and shivering, but excited.
"That was awesome!" she said, "I’m gonna do it again!"
There was to be no backing out now - if a girl could do it and react like that, I would be losing some serious man points if I didn’t do it.
Almost inspired by Jodine’s feat, John and Sag
Corb On The TrailCorb On The TrailCorb On The Trail

He was pretty fast too!
then went out, one after the other, as well as the other girls. Two minutes later, they were both back, Sag in particular shivering like mad, his back covered in snow.
"So cold, so cold, so cold" he jittered. "I did a snow angel on the way back in!"
Corb has his turn and comes back just as cold as Sag was - he did a semi-naked snow angel too.
I pride myself on my heat resistance so I was always going to take a bit longer to warm up sufficiently, but before jumping into a frozen lake I wanted to be as hot as I possibly could - sweating out of every orifice and irradiating heat like the hot coals that were keeping this sauna going. It was then time. I wasn’t as hot as I was in the steam room in Budapest but I couldn’t wait forever.
Stepping out of the sauna into the showers and changing room, the air felt normal - but I pretty much lost all of the heat I had built up as soon as I walked outside. Like everyone else, I wanted to get this over with as quick as possible so I
Slapstick & ScenerySlapstick & ScenerySlapstick & Scenery

A rather nice setting as we look ahead to people crashing down the hill in front of us.
sprinted from the sauna lodge to the lake. It was a good 40-50 metre sprint and waiting for me by the lake was Sarah, our evidence photographer, and Karin, the tour guide.
"Watch out, the platform is slippery!", shouted Karin.
The wooden platform was completely covered in ice, so I slowed right down and pretty much tip-toed my way towards the ladder. For safety reasons, we have to climb down the ladder and into the water without letting go, and with good reason. The water is er, cold, and it isn’t as bad as you might think - but you don’t exactly want to linger in the water. You definitely wouldn’t want to put your head under - that would be the worst brain freeze ever. I stay in the water for about 2-3 seconds which is about as long as I can stay comfortable in there, before climbing out. The ladder is almost completely covered in ice and my hands get stuck to ladder like your tongue might stick to ice. The rest of the ladder is slippery however, so I have to be measured when climbing out of the water to ensure I don’t slip back in. Sarah
Pre-Ice SwimPre-Ice SwimPre-Ice Swim

Casually strutting down to the water in a balmy -27 degrees.
snaps me as I exit the water and I don’t feel too bad and casually walk back across the platform, even stopping for a couple more poses for Sarah. Then suddenly my wet boardies start to sting against my thighs and the soles of my feet start to hurt, bizarrely, as if I was stepping on coals. I then sprint back to the lodge, my thighs pumping and back straight like Usain Bolt. The wind blowing my frozen board shorts into my legs and the stinging on my feet was actually the worst part - I wasn’t stopping to do a snow angel.
Stepping back into lodge doesn’t give me too much respite but stepping into the sauna and feeling the wall of heat hitting me does.
I don’t know how long it took for my body to get back to normal as I was high on exhilaration and excitement for a while - high enough for long enough to do the whole thing again!
Overall it wasn’t as bad as you think it is and this is what we were reiterating to Sarah when she got into the sauna. By now all the girls had done it and had
The EvidenceThe EvidenceThe Evidence

Post ice swim. Cold much?
said the same thing, and I think this was decisive factor in convincing her to do it. I think we were as proud as she was when she eventually did it.

There was no Christmas turkey for our Christmas dinner, but a Christmas ham (I prefer ham to turkey anyway, as turkey is almost always dry) although this was not the culinary highlight of the dinner. As well as loads of raw fish (raw salmon and pickled herring), was smoked reindeer - and lots of it. Served cold, it was a bit chewy, kind of like beef jerky (but not that chewy) and was very tasty. If you can imagine what dried venison would taste like, it was like that - the only other way I can describe is that it was very similar to the smoked whale I had in Norway.

After dinner, we got a visit from Santa! It took me half the night to actually realise that Santa was actually one of the Aussie dudes from our tour group who had volunteered to be Santa.
Before handing out the Secret Santa gifts that every tour group member had put into Santa’s sack, each and every person in the tour group

John & Joy leaving the lodge.
of about 50, had to do some sort of performance in order to get one. I really wasn’t in the mood for this - I generally like keeping a low profile.
John was first up and did his trademark shuffle to earn his present - others told jokes and some sang songs to earn theirs. I was thinking about doing Gangnam Style but I hate how Psy has inadvertently made Asians a bit of a joke with his worldwide hit, so I refused to do it. In any case the Singaporean girl went up and did it anyway, so much for that. In the end I went up a told a really dirty joke involving Santa and Michael Jackson - so dirty, that it cannot be repeated on these pages. Unfortunately for me, my audience didn’t really seem to see the funny side of it. Rather, they saw the disgusting side of it as I earned howls of derision along with my present.
Should’ve done Gangnam Style.

We were then told that we were all going to a "party on the lake", although as usual, pertinent details weren’t provided so we had no idea what we were in for
Drillbit SangsterDrillbit SangsterDrillbit Sangster

Sag drilling a hole in the ice while Corb looks on with his snowshoes.
or why we were really going out there.
Nice enough as she was, Karin’s guiding of the tour left a bit to be desired. Usually on a tour you would be told exactly what would be happening on each and every day - like how long things are going to take, when we would be having stops on our mammoth bus rides, whether we should be organising food for ourselves or not, food suggestions for when we did have to organise our own meals, when exactly we would be doing our various activities and most importantly - in these conditions - what gear we needed to have on. We just weren’t given much information about anything, including any sort of history or background about the places we were visiting. Any information we were given seemed to have been given more as an afterthought, as you would usually only be told something as it was happening or just before it happened.
I acknowledge that more than one tour guide should have been looking after such a large group and that it was her first time leading this tour, but she just didn’t seem to have much passion for her job. She
Ice FishingIce FishingIce Fishing

John and the girls have a go at fishing for tiny fish, with tiny rods in a tiny hole.
was Estonian rather than Swedish or Finnish and perhaps someone local, who is passionate about showing off their country like Kyriaki in Greece or Sam in Egypt would have added more to the tour. Her face and her demeanour was always drab and stony - and I hate to generalise, but going on my previous experience with Estonians I almost wasn’t surprised.
In general, the tour could’ve been done a bit better - especially from a social perspective as weren’t even asked to introduce ourselves to each other until two days into the tour. Deliberate attempts to form bonds within the group should be done right at the start of the tour if you’re going to try and do it, and frankly it is up to the tour guide to make this happen.

So not knowing exactly what we were doing and how long we would be out there for - and having already had a bit to drink - I forgot to take a beanie out with me. Big mistake.
We ended up going back to the fishing lake where the Greek guy set up two camp fires for everyone to huddle around.
Now I’m not sure what started it - alcohol, probably - but
Karaoke CampfireKaraoke CampfireKaraoke Campfire

Singing drunkenly around the campfire.
we suddenly all started singing songs around the campfire. Someone would start singing the first verse of a song, and then everyone would join in. After a while, the two camp fire groups started competing against each other.
We sang some classics - "Wonderwall", "Don’t Look Back In Anger", "Summer Of ‘69" - although the most lung busting rendition was that of John Farnham’s "The Voice". It arguably has the most karaoke-friendly chorus ever, and more than half the tour group was Australian so we just had to sing it. Good times.

Then it happened.

"Look at the sky!" someone shouted.
The main reason that most people were on this tour was to see it - aurora borealis - the Northern Lights. I’ve already had a go once before where I kind of saw them - but I wanted to see them properly, and it looked like tonight was the night.
They started off as very faint green glimmers, similar to what I saw in Iceland and they kept coming and going. As a result people kept running out onto the lake and then back to the fire again. I was doing it because each time I left the fire, my head was freezing
My Go At Photographing The Northern LightsMy Go At Photographing The Northern LightsMy Go At Photographing The Northern Lights

Didn't quite come out as well as Aussie Dave's although given my camera isn't a DSLR and I didn't have a tripod, it hasn't come out too badly.
and my ears felt like they were going to drop off. So. Cold.
The lights kept fading in and out, but each time they came back on, they seemed to come back stronger and brighter. John and Sag ran back to the lodge to get John’s tripod and camera - Dave, one of the Aussies, already had his out and was handsomely rewarded. The pictures of the lights that you see on this blog came from his camera.
As the lights danced and swirled in the sky, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. The Greek guy was saying that these lights were as bright as he’d ever seen them and that we had got lucky. It says much about how advanced camera technology is these days that what is captured of the Northern Lights on camera is a lot brighter and striking than what is seen by the naked eye. I was hoping to see the whole sky go fluoro-green and for pink swirls to start appearing like portals to another universe - I was hoping that the whole sky would completely illuminate. It never did get as bright as I’d hoped, though it was still awesome to
My Brightest OneMy Brightest OneMy Brightest One

The brightest picture of the lights that I managed to take.
witness. John thought that it was hands down the best thing that he has ever seen.
It saddened me that I didn’t share his enthusiasm. I’ve seen so much, that few things wow me as much as they used to.

After the sky had finished it’s light show, most of us went back to the lodge and went to bed. The party carried on a little at the sauna lodge where I joined the Aussies in some more drinking games but before long everyone hit the sack.
It was a magnificent Christmas Day - a White Christmas of cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, ice fishing, ice swimming, saunas, smoked reindeer meat, alcohol and song, capped off by seeing the Northern Lights, spent with good friends - it will be pretty hard to beat.

Boxing Day 2012 was spent mostly on the coach as we left the lodge behind, bound for Rovaniemi. Some of the Aussies were feeling a little worse for wear.
The highlight of the day would be a visit to the official home of Santa, and indeed Santa himself - at the Santa Claus Village just outside Rovaniemi.
Santa Claus has many origins and where he lives
Entrance To Santa Claus VillageEntrance To Santa Claus VillageEntrance To Santa Claus Village

Buildings in front of the village.
and what he originated from differs depending on which part of the world you are from. In Finland, Santa is from Korvatunturi, but now lives in the Santa Village right on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
It is obviously more for the kids and the village is basically an amusement park that includes Santa’s official office, a post office that receives all of Santa’s mail from around the world (you can actually write a letter to Santa addressed to this post office), toboggan rides, reindeer sleigh rides (which stay on the ground as I am led to believe) and a plethora of restaurants and souvenir shops. We thought about going for a toboggan ride but they were charging 12€ a head! It didn’t look the most exciting of toboggan rides either, it has to be said.
But the main reason for our visit was to meet Santa himself and get a photo with him. We waited a good 20-30 mins for him with the queue snaking around a massive two-storey machine that apparently turns the world around - it kind of explains how Santa delivers presents to every child in the world on one night!
For a kid I
Santa Claus VillageSanta Claus VillageSanta Claus Village

Santa's "home" is an amusement park, mainly for kids.
can imagine this being a very exciting thing to do and some part of me felt this excitement about coming all the way to the Arctic Circle to meet him (even though he doesn’t actually live in the North Pole, as I was led to believe when growing up - meh, close enough) - but in reality, we are adults, so we were looking to make our own fun. Corb took this idea of creating his own fun a bit too far; before entering Santa’s office, there is a TV screen above the entrance that shows everything that is happening inside. As Corb sat next to Santa, he says something to Santa before sliding his hand under Santa’s robe! Santa plays along and smiles for the camera while everyone in the queue cracks up. What Corb may or may not have known is that what is being shown on screen is also being broadcast live on the internet! Imagine the millions of kids around the world seeing Santa get molested by Corb! I don’t know what Corb was thinking, but it was disturbing yet hilarious at the same time.
As I approached Santa he asks me where I am from.
Sag, Santa & SarahSag, Santa & SarahSag, Santa & Sarah

Sag & Sarah have their picture taken with Santa while I capture the moment on the TV screen outside Santa's office. They charge you 25€ for a printed photo, and 50€ for a photo DVD!
I tell him I am from New Zealand and with a German-sounding accent (he was probably Finnish) he tells me how beautiful New Zealand is. We smile for the photo and then he wishes me good luck. Even though I know the whole thing is made up, I still felt giddy about the fact I was meeting the "real" Santa Claus - some parts of you will never grow up.

After our visit to Santa Claus, we are deposited in central Rovaniemi for an hour to look around. There isn’t too much to the place - a main pedestrian drag full of shops and a small tube ride for kids. How many town centres can boast a free-to-use tube ride? Simply take your own sled up the ladder and then slide down on it, pretending that you are part of the Jamaican bobsled team.
Rovaniemi is also home to the world’s northernmost McDonald’s.
We spent most of the hour in a pub while Joy and Sarah each bought a reindeer skin. They are nice to the touch and are by all accounts very warm, and would be great for displaying around the house.

We spend the penultimate night
Downtown RovaniemiDowntown RovaniemiDowntown Rovaniemi

The -14 degrees showing on the tower was actually the warmest temperature that we had experienced for four days.
of the tour in a motel just outside Rovaniemi where we eat our supermarket bought dinners with the twelve other tour-goers sharing our lodge. With 16 people in four bedrooms all sharing a bathroom and kitchen, it was pretty cosy. Also cosy was the temperature inside, as it was absolutely boiling.
Everyone is pretty tied from the previous day and from spending almost all day on the coach so after a few beers and a few games of cards, we all settle in for the night.

And that is pretty much that. We spend the last day travelling to Helsinki and have a final night out, but having written about Helsinki not just once, but twice, and having visited the city again once more since, I don’t feel I need to write about it again.

And with that is my last blog entry for 2012. It has been quite a year travel-wise, with visits to Basel, Hamburg, Newcastle, Turkey, San Francisco, Northern Ireland, Granada, Norway, Leeds, Oxford, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Cardiff, San Jose and Lapland. I’ve got a few places lined up for 2013 although I’m not sure if it will be as travel-crazy as 2012! We’ll see...
Tube Ride!Tube Ride!Tube Ride!

How many towns have a free tube ride in the middle of town for kids? Not many, if any.

The year will start off pretty excitingly though - the next time you hear from me will be from Brazil during Carnaval! Until then though...


Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 30


More Aurora BorealisMore Aurora Borealis
More Aurora Borealis

Taking these picture in such cold temperatures was a real challenge while trying to forget about how cold my head was without a beanie. Keeping the camera still was very difficult.
Peep ShowPeep Show
Peep Show

My view as I make headway along the trail.
Slope Back To The LodgeSlope Back To The Lodge
Slope Back To The Lodge

One of the guys has a go speeding down the slope back to the lodge.
Santa's OfficeSanta's Office
Santa's Office

Where you get to meet the man himself!

At Santa Claus Village.
Christmas TreeChristmas Tree
Christmas Tree

At Santa Claus Village.

That has got to be Mr Hanky, the Christmas poo.

The main pedestrian drag in Rovaniemi.
Toilet Speed Limit?Toilet Speed Limit?
Toilet Speed Limit?

I do feel a bit bad about mocking people in wheelchairs here and I will probably go to hell for it, but I what else could this sign in the hostel mean?

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