Days 17-18: Kirkenes-MS Spitsbergen

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October 16th 2016
Published: November 6th 2016
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The transport system served us well again the following morning when we were able to leave Maya’s apartment at 7.00am for a 7.14am train that took less than thirty minutes to take us 60 km to the airport with a stop along the way. The plane journey to Kirkenes was one of keen anticipation, as our destination was remote and cold way beyond Peter Dutton, our first time inside the Arctic Circle, by several degrees of latitude. Also, not unexpectedly, several degrees colder than we had been used to. The downy jackets from Iceland were starting to work for their keep. A not-so-new shuttle bus took us to one of the two hotels in a small port/industrial town with tourist overlays, just 10 km from the Russian border. There is a kind of passport-free zone for locals extending about 40 km either side of the border, facilitating local trade: Russians with money can get things unobtainable on their side, and Norwegians can get staples like petrol and potatoes very cheaply. Some Kirkenes town signage is even replicated in Russian. The high seasons here are summer and winter – in between, like now, things are quiet, and we checked into a Thon Hotel room overlooking the Barents Sea without too much company in the place.

In the afternoon, we (just we) took a trip to a sled-dog farm! We were harnessed to a single dog each, which pulled us along (when not stopping to sniff, which was A LOT) and thus made an uphill hike a bit easier. Up to a viewpoint over the town and countryside, where our guide, who was a marine biologist but presently working out of water because she loves dogs, supplied us with reindeer sausages and a local hot berry drink for sustenance. There was wreckage of a crashed WWII Messerschmidt just lying around unmarked, and news of a bear that had been sighted “on that bridge just down there.”

The dogs were less helpful going downhill than up, but we didn’t care because we were going to CUDDLE LOTS OF PUPPIES and meet reindeer. The dogs were a varied lot – our guide said that purebred huskies are actually not the best for sledding, and that a cross with almost any other breed was beneficial. The puppies were very big for their age, fat and furry in anticipation of winter. The reindeer were tame, old or lame ones given to the farm by local Sami (technically lent, not given, because only Sami may own reindeer). We were surprised at how red and raw the antlers look where the velvet is being shed for regeneration.

After a pre-dinner nap (big hike) we found a local “futboll pub”, filled with locals, for dinner and a beer or two. Pizza there included a large range of exotic ingredients such as smoked reindeer strips, leeks, taco sauce and raisins, thrown together apparently randomly into surprising combinations.

Next day at midday was the start of our cruise down the west coast, so we slept in at the hotel and enjoyed a late-ish breakfast at a table overlooking the harbour. Two hours later, no sooner were we on board than it was lunchtime, and a plentiful feast was available. This was our introduction to cruise meal overload, which will be a blessing and a curse for the next few days. That afternoon and evening, counterintuitively, we spent sailing eastwards, as Kirkenes is sort of tucked under a lumpy bit of Norway that sticks out to the north-east into the Barents Sea, so we had to start off sailing anticlockwise around that.

The cruise boats also carry cargo and so make a lot of stops in very small towns: some during the night, some for only 15 minutes, some for a longer time that allows a stroll around the place. Our very first stop, at Vardo, was one of these. It was essentially a small sea port without the tourism gloss of Kirkenes, and as such made for an unattractive but interesting visit. There were to be a few of those scattered among the more conventionally beautiful places along the way.

Dinner comes in 6pm and 8pm sittings, and we were assigned to the latter. Plus side: you get hungrier for it because it’s longer since lunch. Minus side: you go to sleep late and have trouble rising (but the slow sunrise isn’t till about 8.30, so that’s not so bad after all). First night the main course was reindeer. (Not reindeer again! We had that yesterday!) As a sirloin it’s very lean, a bit like kangaroo, but much more tender. That night, on the open Barents sea off the north coast, we encountered a little rough weather, enough to make even the staff hold onto rails occasionally, but suffered no seasickness – in fact, the gentle rocking in our small but comfortable cabin was rather restful.

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