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Published: February 18th 2018
In North Norway it is acceptable for the locals to refer to the police as 'you f***ing horse d!ck' when speaking directly to anyone in the force. However, in the South this is frowned upon and will get you arrested and slapped with a fine. Unless you are visiting from the North, as it is generally accepted that the Northerners are rougher around the edges due to harsh living and so 'you f***ing horse d!ck' is known to be a friendly salutation. Apparently this has been highlighted in the press recently when a northerner visiting Oslo required help from local police due to car trouble. I'm not sure if it's OK for tourists to use this term, and so when we drove past the police station, I did not stick my head out of the window shouting friendly obscenities, although the thought did cross my mind. As it goes, I've seen very little police presence around here, maybe it's just too cold for crime. I found this out during a pre-booked tour taking us around various photographic locations. Any location around Tromsø is picturesque so the tour included many stops.
The day started with a 45 min walk to the
centre of town, my bra loaded with two camera batteries. This is not something I normally do, but upon the advice of John and Brenda Appleyard, I was told that batteries lose power in the cold and so the best way to keep them warm is in your underwear. They're going to patent underwear with battery pockets soon, so don't steal their idea! I found our later the flaw in the design: when its cold and you need to take of your gloves to find a way in through the many layers, icy hands on warm body parts does wake you up, but the batteries are extremely warm.
We met the guides for our tour at the Clarion Hotel and pulled the long straws in that we got to share a minibus with just two others whilst the other one was packed with what Glyn calls 'peckerheads'. Immediately we were given a basket of biscuits including Jaffa cakes, so a good start.. We drove north from Tromsø through tunnels under the mountains that had underground roundabouts centred with rock pillars. We continued over a bridge to the island of Kvaløya and then another bridge to a smaller island, Håkøya
where wild moose managed to avoid us. Further up was a memorial and the wreckage of the German battleship Tirpitz that was sunk by two British Lancaster Bombers costing around 900 lives during World War 2. There's not much of the wreckage left but as always there was an amazing view across the water to the mountains from the snow covered beach.
The lady guide told us that in Norway, everyone owns everything, so it's everyone's responsibility to keep it clean. This is awesome because so far I have seen absolutely no litter. Not even a cigarette butt. There's a small amount of graffiti but that's it. If a person owns a house on the coast, they own the land from beach house to as far as a horse can go in the sea (get yourself a horse that likes to swim!) and if you live on a mountain, the land up to top of mountain is yours. No one needs licence to fish unless they earn a living from it, and so can catch up to 30 cod a day to live on. Anyone can camp anywhere for up to three days so long as it's not within
150 metres of a house. And be careful if you pitch your tent on a beach, as you may be camping in someone's garden; a guy came up to our guide, moaning, as a group of tourists poled up and had a barbecue on his beach last night and kept him awake.
Driving further north we stopped at a supermarket to use the loo and eat the free samples. We were advised to pee even if you thought you had no need as peeing keeps you warm. No, I don't mean the warmth of it running down your leg, but apparently it's a waste of energy keeping urine warm inside your body, so get rid of as much as possible! Now in England when you get free samples of food, they are closely guarded by sales staff whose job is to guilt you into buying. Not here! Glyn chomped his way through large chunks of smoked salmon and I worked my way through the cheese section, twice. Next was the fruit after Glyn ate some other meat stuff. It was awesome, unless you wanted to buy anything as the prices were out of this world. Queuing for the loo
we saw that a small deodorant cost around £4 and a box of hair dye was around £13 - at home I pay less than a quid for deodorant and two boxes of dye for £4.50 at Superdrug. So not only do the prices make you turn grey, you can't afford to hide it!
Another stop entailed climbing a steep and frozen mountainside in the hope of seeing wild reindeer. Non Norwegians who were unaccustomed to the icy snow were sliding and falling a lot, whilst the guides made it look easy as they ran to help various people. There was no pointing grabbing and the sparse trees, as they were all completely brittle and dead, so you would still slide backwards, clutching a dead branch as you fell. We did find some reindeer that I could just about see with the naked eye, but better with a zoom lens, however they soon clocked us and legged it. The view back down was stunning and I got left behind taking photos. A few people gave up trying to walk and slid down on their backsides, one guy hit a tree pretty hard. Glyn managed to cut his hand in
multiple places falling in the snow, turning it pink - litterbug! The cuts were shallow but kept bleeding a while.
Less than a mile further down the road was another wild reindeer, and right by the roadside. Could have saved a lot of effort if we'd known, but I had enjoyed the climb.
Back in the minibus we were given fruit to eat as we continued north to view more snowy viewpoints. At Ersfjordbotn, we were supplied with mini plastic sleds and minor accidents soon happened.
Our driver decided to get cultural and play Sami music. The Sami people are indigenous to north Norway and know a lot about reindeer. The singing was nice and the lyrics went something like this: Olli olli Li Li Li lo. Our driver explained that anyone can sing along.
We ended up at Grøtfjord, a tiny fishing village, (as is everywhere here). There were no bars, cafes, shops or anything communal, but there were some tourist huts and a toilet as the locals got sick of tourists knocking on their doors needing the loo. Sand was visible on the beach but there were lumps of ice on it. Here a
small barbecue was organised where we were given sticks to burn sausages or fish cakes over, they also supplied veggie sausages, so I got a go. I asked about the locals and was told about how they were known to be tough and rough, that they swear at each other and police by way of greeting (not much different to home, or is it just the people I hang out with?). Everyone works in the fishing industry and depression is a big issue in the winter months when it is dark 24 hours a day. People tend to stay in or visit friends rather than go out as the prices are so high. The younger ones pre-load and then go out after midnight. In the summer, when its constant daylight, people are hyper and struggle to sleep. It's easy to see how they get so tough.
At the end of the tour we were most grateful to be dropped off at our Air b'n'b, as it meant we had time for a bit of battery recharging before the 45 min walk back to the town centre for our Northern Lights tour.
We were picked up from the Radison
Blu hotel by Vidar, an expert Northern Lights photographer from Tromsø and his cohort, Jeff from Canada. There were eight of us in two minibuses and the trip started at Vidar's home which was on the island of Kvaløya. Arriving at his wooden home (that's nothing new here, they all are but I thought I'd slip in that fact somehow) we were greeted by the sound of howling huskies nearby. Here we were given a talk on technique in English and Spanish, the others being from India, Germany, Chile and Spain. Vidar was confident we would see the lights but told us that as humans are daytime animals, our night vision is crap and it becomes more black and white in the dark (apparently our side vision is completely black and white - who knew?). There's a saying that goes "at night all cats are grey". So basically he warned us, life is not like the movies: cameras see colour at night better than us and all the photos you see on the internet probably are saturated in Photoshop. So be prepared for disappointment.
However he did lend us pretty marvellous Benro tripods with an offer for thermal coveralls
that are like sleeping bags for warmth. We were given camera settings and Vidar also focused my camera out of his window, taping the focus ring and zoom down to keep it all in focus when in the dark. It was time to go, but first I slid over, albeit very gracefully....
A dark journey through the snowy roads took us to Whale Bay near Tromvik where we precariously picked our way through icy boulders and rocks down to the waters edge in the near dark. Vidar is very much against the overuse of torches as it ruins your night vision, so I kept mine in red in hope of avoiding the glassy rocks. The stars were out and so we practiced shooting those and attempted to compose decent photos without being able to see anything. Upon looking at the back of my camera, I was surprised to see it was very green - my camera was seeing the Northern Lights before I did!
With time, pale streaks of white light surfaced across the sky and looked a lot more marvellous on the camera. I was dubious - I mean it was ok, but what was everyone banging
on about, it wasn't amazing and I'm sure having the white balance set to incandescent helped the fakery. As it got later, so the lights became more intense and I made my way up a nearby secluded hill to shoot them through the trees. Vidar also shot myself and Glyn in front of the lights using fill in flash and the results were impressive.
At around 9pm, Jeff had lit a fire on the beach and the Spanish and Chileans had given up on photos to sit on the smooth rocks circling the fire. The rest of us eventually joined them and were fed hot vegetable soup with breadsticks. Some of the rocks were so smooth it was hard not to slide off them.
Afterwards there were slightly different patterns in the lights so the Indian guy, German lady, Vidar, Glyn and myself continued with photography. Glyn and I just started walking up the hill when the lights totally kicked off. I didn't know which part to look at, it was swirling greens and oranges all over. Staring one way meant there was potential to miss much more behind you. It went on and on, like a shower
of light projecting from Tromsø and twirling over Tromvik. Now I could see what people have been banging on about all these years, this was absolutely amazing and well worth the trip. It was completely silent but felt that it should be accompanied by a full orchestra playing rousing music. The pictures look great on the back of my camera, I hope to God they are in focus! It was impossible to get a shot with an iPhone 6 though.
After an eternity, the lights faded a bit and I wandered back to the beach to get more shots reflected in the sea. Just when I thought it was over, the lights intensified again, in different parts of the sky. Jeff brought us coffee and biscuits as the cold began to really set in.
Sometime after 11pm, Vidar lured us away with the promise of a toilet. He drove us to his grandparent's barn that has a portaloo that he and his cousin hire as they both run tourist tours and the grandparents were getting sick of tourists using their private loo.
A short trip uphill took us to a very dark area. The lights had died
down but I still carried on shooting as it was a change of scenery. Vidar asked if any of us were interested in a 'lonely tree' and if you are a photography nerd, you will appreciate how exciting this is. Four of us trekked down to the tree and this is when the lights really kicked in. Even Vidar was wowed: it only happens this good about once a month, but not every month. Apparently it's gotten progressively better for three nights in a row and minds were collectively blown. Some people lay down in he snow, hypnotised by the shimmering sky. We were out in the freezing cold until long after 1.30, constantly taking 'one last photo' and the lights never ceased, not even when we left.
This was an amazing trip, not only were we super lucky with the aurora, but Glyn did well booking with an expert who ensured we all got great shots. I'm still on the minibus as I type this, it's 2.18am and I've no idea when we get home, but I'm still wide awake with excitement!
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