Tripping the light fantastic: Northern Lights in Norway

On Deck 9, Midnatsol, Norway. Photo: Bob Stephan

There’s reindeer on the menu and light shows in the polar night, as Belinda Jackson cruises around Norway.

The temperature says it all: it’s 2.2 degrees C but the wind-chill factor drags it down well below zero.

The ground is slippery with black ice and it’s only 5pm, yet the sun has long given way to a dark, polar night.

Norway’s extreme north is turning on a chilly welcome this November eve.

The town of Kirkenes is the starting point for my sea journey from high up in the Arctic region to the gentler climes of Bergen in the south of Norway, just a hop-skip across the North Sea to Scotland’s Shetland Islands.

To help you place Kirkenes on the world map, it’s 400km past the Arctic Circle, 7km from the Russian border and 37km west of Finland. There are reindeer burgers on the hotel menu and rather prosaic tips on sleeping during the midnight sun (close the curtains).

The next morning, my chariot awaits. More precisely, it’s the Hurtigruten. Even more precisely, Hurtigruten is not one particular ship, but a route (‘hurtig ruten’ = fast route) that links Norway’s coastal towns and villages.

A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year for the journey to Kirkenes and has been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship, the MS Midnatsol (Midnight Sun), was built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can take up to 1000 passengers (and not just tourists), drawn predominantly from the UK, USA and northern Europe – not to mention more Australians than you’d expect. Our ship has also a substantial smattering of Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of transportation, and the staff are all locals, too, save a few foreigners…from Sweden.

My cabin is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make comfortable beds, there’s a little desk and a bathroom that can be described kindly as ‘petite’. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are preferable, with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which, understandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship around on the stretches of open sea.

Panorama Lounge, Midnatsol, Norway.
Unlike most cruise ships, there’s no grand piano chained to the floor, there are no dancing chorus girls, and the stars are not belting out their ’70s hit parade but glittering overhead in the black depths of the winter sky.

“You won’t starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully at my first meal. My induction to the chef’s hand is lunch, which today features five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax and tubes of Mills Caviar, as well as reindeer casserole with onions and mushrooms.

Stopping at coastal habitations, sometimes for as little than 15 minutes, we’re encouraged to jump off and explore: from the excellent polar bear museum in Hammerfest to walking the mediaeval streets of Trondheim or feeling your skin prickle during an eerie, uplifting midnight concert in Tromso Cathedral.

Cruising in winter has a couple of fairly obvious disadvantages: firstly, it’s seriously cold and secondly, you’ve got to cram your sightseeing into the brief hours of daylight. Nobody’s worried – we’re all here for the big winter drawcard: the lure of spotting the Northern Lights.

They’re fickle beasts, those lights. They flicker and swirl without a care who’s watching, but winter 2013/14 and 2014/15 are considered the best in a decade for seeing what local legends describe as the dancing souls of the departed, or a shining bridge to the heavens. There are two astronomy groups on board, so we’re treated to guest lectures and the ship hands out a memo of photography tips.

And we get lucky.

Rugged to the eyeballs – literally – we camp out on Deck 9, the open deck at the top of the ship, which also houses two outdoor jacuzzis that steam invitingly. The wind’s agile fingers tear at our clothes and the ship rolls and churns as we strive to catch the roiling clouds of green light in our camera lenses as, for two spectacular nights, the Aurora Borealis deigns to put on a show.

Down below, we break from viewing to drink hot tea and peel back the layers of clothing. The talk is all about the lengthy light show and photos are admired and emailed onward. Many travellers slip into a reflective state, absorbing the daytime scenery of fresh snow on dramatic peaks and revelling in the nocturnal adventures in the sky.

There’s a sense of camaraderie among us all: we have tripped the light fantastic.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Bentours.

This article was published in Get Up & Go magazine. 

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