The Much Anticipated Norwegian Aurora Hunt



All right, time to shoot for the stars and do the unprecedented this year: write two full posts less than three months apart from each other. Well, one and a half, I suppose the previous one can’t really be called a full post. Ambitious, I know, but I was never afraid of flying too close to the sun.

It’s about time, I think, to go back and finally finish the much awaited Norway entry. Well, perhaps finish isn’t entirely accurate, since the three petty attempts at scribbling something down on the subject can hardly be called beginnings. I suppose the main reasons I’ve been putting it off for so long are I was quite dissatisfied with the photos I’d taken there and I didn’t feel there was much to the story of the trip.  But there’s nothing like a needlessly long intro to make a pointless story to seem less boring, so on we go!


In order to make the proper introduction to this unexpectedly (and, probably, unjustifiably) chapter, I’ll have to go a bit back in time to roughly October last year, a time when most of my waking hours tended to blend into each other in a mixture of study, apathy and discontent. I’d spend the days repeatedly going over the fairly extensive topics I needed to cover for the speciality exam and the evenings and late nights going over virtually anything else. It was during one of those late nights that I came across one of Alastair Humphreys’ stories about his recent adventure in Lofoten, a story which got me instantly excited.

Having, a few years earlier, gone on a trip to Sweden, which proved unsuccessful in its purpose to properly see the Northern Lights (as well as highly unsuccessful in several other aspects), it took me little time to decide – „now’s the perfect time to make a new attempt”. Aiming for Norway, and specifically Lofoten, I contact the only person I knew from that part of the world, who also happened to be my oldest internet friend – Sina, who, serendipitously, after an extended period of living abroad, had only recently moved back to her home in Harstad, a town some 200 km from Lofoten.

Politely not dwelling too much on my charming and subtle “hey, haven’t spoken in a long time, how’s it going, oh by the way, can I crash at your place for a week?” approach, Sina graciously agreed to be my host, thus eliminating Norway’s prohibitively expensive hotels from the list of things to worry about. Not wanting to run out of momentum, I bought the plane tickets within the next couple of days. Since the main purpose of the trip was to see the Northern Lights, with some light winter trekking/camping as secondary objectives, I figured I wouldn’t really care much about either the cold or lack of daylight so I settled for December 4th-11th, fully expecting a whole week spent in the arctic circle so close to the winter solstice to provide me with plenty of opportunities to gaze at the greenly-lit night sky.

From then on, time moved agonizingly slowly, but eventually mid-November went by, the exam passed (successfully!) and December was right around the corner. I started the month with the Cozia trip I’ve mentioned earlier, followed by a couple of days in the capital visiting my mother for her birthday, followed by the much anticipated departure.

December 4th, 2017

The alarm jarringly rings at 3 AM; had I any clairvoyance and insight into just how important it is to actually give yourself an adequate margin of error for catching international flights, I’d be much less irritated by it. Mom, always helpful and trying to make things easier for her son (rather than expedite his departure, I should hope) is already up, breakfast is ready and the aroma of coffee has spread to every corner of the kitchen. Time is rather short and, soon enough, we say our farewells and the taxi arrives to take me to the airport.

After what I suspect was a slightly overpriced detour, I arrive at Henri Coandă just in time to check in my luggage – a carefully packed and skilfully wrapped backpack, filled with everything I expect I’ll need in the frigid northern wastes, camping equipment ambitiously included. Because the tent, walking poles and ice pick (!) made a rather unsavoury bulge under all the shrink wrap, significantly distancing my rucksack from the adequate, rectangular shape filled by most traveller’s bags, I was required to take it to the oversized luggage section. A few minutes later, much to my excitement, I was called there by airport security to verify something that seemed suspicious to them. Apparently, as the most basic of google searches, rudimentary glances at an airline’s policy or, I guess, blatant common sense, might have revealed, they tend to frown upon carrying potentially explosive stuff in their planes, and the cargo hold is not exempt from that regulation. And predictably, that limitation includes propane gas canisters for camp stoves. So I find myself having to unwrap, unpack (of course the canister’s right at the bloody bottom of the bag), give it away to security, repack and rewrap the whole thing, all for the mundane sake of not risking blowing up the plane.

Slightly bummed out by the minor setback, I proceed to security check, eager to get on with the tedious boarding process and start my adventure. Of course, as I pass through the metal detector gate without incident and, once again, the security guy calls me for a closer inspection of my hand luggage, I realise that my carelessness in packing was not limited to the large backpack. Judiciously avoiding to put any deodorant or toothpaste or hygiene products of any sort inside the hand luggage (and opting to stash them in the rucksack), I somehow neglected to remove the Swiss army knife I’d brought with me on the Cozia trip. Needless to say, I’m forced to relinquish it as well to security, the risk of stabbing people on the plane apparently too big for them to allow me to carry it along.

So, under somewhat inauspicious beginnings, but with considerable wisdom gained, I proceed to board the plane and, shortly after, take off for Oslo, just as the sun is slowly starting to rise. The flight itself proves to be rather uneventful (though after the previous two brushes with security, I’m fully expecting a hat trick by the time I leave the airport).

As we near the end of the journey and the lady on the speaker keeps talking about our destination and imminent landing, I come to a startling epiphany that a quick glance at my tickets confirms: I’m about to land on the Oslo – Torp airport. I’m to take off from the Oslo Gardermoen airport. That I would come to this realisation now, minutes before landing, should reflect very strongly on my invaluable skills as an organizer.

First sight of the Norwegian skyline as we're about to land


But land I do, and with the sun barely above the horizon, I step out onto Norwegian soil, eager to get my backpack and continue the trip northwards. Now, given how this story has started, it’d be a fair assumption to expect another hiccup, perhaps a misplaced bag, a wallet forgotten on the plane or a sprained ankle going down the stairs, but no, I proceed uneventfully through both security check and luggage pick up and soon find myself stepping out the airport door, huge, wrapped backpack held awkwardly in both hands (not wanting to unwrap it and then pay to have it wrapped again a few hours later).

Through the grace of free airport wifi, I find out that I can either go directly to Gardermoen with a bus that leaves in roughly 40 minutes, but then I’d have to twiddle my thumbs there for the remainder of the time until take-off, or I can take the bus to Oslo (which is some 120 km from Torp) right now and spend a few hours there. Even with the unplanned expense, the choice is fairly obvious – I don’t get the opportunity to visit the Norwegian capital every day.

As the bus leaves, with morning well under way, I begin to take a closer look at my surroundings, unable to shake off a feeling of eeriness. Because of its latitude, the winter sun in Oslo (and more so farther north) never rises too far above to horizon; thus, while it loses little of its brightness, it continues to shine at an angle that just makes the light feel weird to anybody used to daylight at a lower latitude, like it’s stuck in a state of perpetual morning. Nepal was an exotic destination to get to, with huge differences in culture, but it’s Norway that, strangely enough, feels more alien.

Not to say that’s in any way negative! As we move towards Oslo, I find myself constantly distracted from reading by the stunning way in which the light falls upon the snowed fields and rich forests, so much so that I hardly feel the hour and a half go by and soon find myself at Oslo Central Station, with several hours to kill before the flight to Harstad/Narvik.

I walk around fairly randomly, trying to reach places which seem interesting on google maps – a nearby park and, in the opposite direction, the waterfront, and while I don’t have enough time to truly know the city, what I do see, I like. I’ll let the pictures speak more on the subject before moving on to the last leg of today’s journey.

See what I mean when I say everything is soaked in morning light?



An interesting way to mark the entrance to a promenade

The park I was telling you about; see how the trees are lit by the sun (and it's probably around 10 o'clocl!)

Viking longboat turned botanical exposition.

I actually saw a squirrel scurrying through there, but couldn't exchange lenses quickly enough to catch it on film

The blue sky was just breath taking

Longshanks.

A fitting throne.

With a very snow-starved winter back in Romania, walking through the park was exquisitely pleasant

Oslo feels old and modern at the same time

But seriously, they make the creepiest statues.

I can just imagine this guy diving straight into the Abyss

On the other hand, look how they can enjoy their mid-day sunsets!

From wooden amphiater type structures!

The obvious signs of industry do little to take the beauty away from this place

So much so that I felt it's worth repeating

Ah, and lest I should forget, Oslo is full of birds!

Like Odin's own favourite

Swans, under close watch by the above-mentioned crow/raven

Excuse the blurriness, as in all photos done with the wide lens.

Back to the birds!

Couldn't resist adding so many of them, especially since my landscapes are somewhat lacklustre

I mean look at this brave, one-legged seagull stoically enduring the cold

Not like this asshole, who's so obviously full of himself

After the brief and disorganised tour of Oslo, the time has come to finally fly into the Arctic Circle; properly prepared, with no potential flight risks whatsoever on either of my bags, I breeze through airport security and soon find myself enjoying the window seat. A pitch black window through which only the plane wing with the company’s logo can be seen, which means I spend most of the flight reading, but as we get near and the attendant announces we’re about to start the descent, I decide to take another look outside and, much to my excitement, I catch a glimpse of a hazy, anaemic spectacle that is the Aurora Borealis – nowhere near what one might hope from the numerous online photos and films, but still something visibly green and bright. Despite how things started in Bucharest, I’m off to an auspicious beginning, I say to myself.

I wonder if I can score some points with Norwegian air for the free advertising

Welcome to the Arctic Circle!

As if the whole providing shelter thing weren’t enough, Sina, with her friend Michael, also kindly pick me up from the airport, which is lucky, since I’m fairly certain I’d have to use my tent before I’m able to get to her place on my own. After the quick and emotional greeting (it’s the first time we meet in person, having known each other online for some 15 years), we get my bags loaded in Michael’s car and drive to Sina’s home (which is in the Sørvik village, close to Harstad) through the fairly heavy snow, which doesn’t bode terribly well for any Northern Lights sighting plans. Once home, we spend the rest of the evening (which is a relative term, since it gets dark around 14:00) catching up and reminiscing before going to sleep.

Norway, December 5th-9th (I didn’t keep a record of what happened the next days, so this is a rough recall of the most memorable moments, hopefully in chronologic order; looking at how much I’ve written so far, I’m also going to try to make it more concise)

It’s strange to wake up at 9 o’clock with barely any sunlight outside, but always one to enjoy sleeping in, I quickly get used to it. We spend the first day with Sina showing me the surroundings, taking note of the local church, school, splendid coastline, abundant forest and nearby hilltop, all thoroughly blanketed with more snow than I’ve seen since I was a kid and winters used to be properly snowy in Romania. We also stop by the local convenience store to get some frozen pizza and beer.

Church, wooden

A wild Norwegian appears.


Once it gets dark (which, as mentioned, happens around 14:00), we get back home and spend the rest of the evening discussing video games and career choices (probably, I can’t really remember each of topic of conversation 7 months later, but those sound about right). At some point, Sina, who’d gone outside for a bit, calls out to me: the Northern Lights are visible! Giddy with excitement, I take a few photos – it’s not quite what I’d hope for, but it’s only the first night, still plenty of opportunities to go.

The cables and utility pole detract somewhat from the beauty, but it's still a sight to behold


I do feel somewhat less enthusiastic about my original plans – set off into the wilderness, go to Lofoten, camp under the Arctic sky, stuff intrepid adventurers do; while I did know about the very short days from before I got here (as Sina herself had warned me!), actually being here and experiencing them does slightly intimidate me from extensive outdoor ventures. I figure that, while winter hiking at night isn’t necessarily an impossible task (though it isn’t exactly desirable either), pitching a tent, in the dark, at freezing temperatures, for somebody who has virtually no winter camping experience at all, might prove to be just a tiny bit too ambitious. Which of course leaves open the option of traveling under daylight, for six hours or however long it lasts, and camping as it gets dark; while this sounds more feasible, it does raise the concerning question of what I would do with the remaining 18 hours – sleep, sure, admire the sky, clearly, maybe some reading, plenty of introspection, no doubt, but I don’t really see myself stretching those activities to fill several days’ worth of travel; in fact, I’m doubtful I possess the mental fortitude for even one such night.

But, personal doubts and concerns aside, we spend the rest of the evening pleasantly chatting. The next day’s sort of a big deal: Patrick, Sina’s boyfriend, is arriving from the Netherlands, which gives me the perfect opportunity to take a short trip to Harstad and see what life’s like in one of the most northern European cities.

Buildings, roads, sky, snow. Exotic.

It probably felt as cold as it looked.


Pretty similar to what it’s like in a lot of other European cities, as it turns out. Much like in Oslo, I’ll let the photos (albeit fewer in number) do most of the talking.

Clearly, this appears to be of some significance.


After getting back home, I meet Patrick and three of us spend the rest of the evening playing a variety of computer and/or miming games. Not quite the exciting northern adventure I’d planned, but fun nonetheless.

The main thing to focus on here are the three perfectly aligned maps on the wall right in front.


The rest of the days went by in a fairly similar fashion, with one exception which I suppose is worth a few extra paragraphs. Determined not to give up entirely on the whole braving the elements, wild camping, ruggedly adventurous plans I’d flown all this way with, eventually I decide that I’ll at the very least spend one night inside a tent. Dreading the above-mentioned 18 hours of sitting in and around the tent waiting for darkness to pass, I conclude that the smartest thing to do would be to leave later in the evening, I think around 20-21:00. Studying the map with Sina, the Storvatnet Lake, some 7.5 km away, comes up as a reasonable destination: supposedly remote enough to provide ample camping grounds, but with a straightforward road leading to it, with little to no chance of getting lost.

And so, target in sight, I put on my backpack which, having not carried it around for the last few days, seems heavier than I remembered, and, poles in hands, head off into the dark. Well, not dark – street lights followed the road for several hundreds of metres  after leaving Sørvik, and long after that, I would still pass by the occasional, isolated house lit up by plenty of decorative tiny bulbs on their lawn.

To make things interesting, just as I’m going past one of the last houses, on the village edge, I hear some rustling from the yard: I look in that direction just in time to catch what I assume must be a young moose scurry off into the forest nearby. An experience which doesn’t really lift my spirits as you’d expect an encounter with a majestic, wild animal to, because it sharply brings to mind one of the conversations with Sina, when she mentioned how the females can become fiercely territorial and protective of their cubs (as, I suppose, most animals are).

So, for the rest of the trip to the lake, I’m elated at how great it is that here I am! having the great northern adventure, bravely treading upon the properly cleaned Norwegian road, hardly blinking in the face of danger, even as I’m starting to see signs of civilisation as far as a few hundred metres from one another. But at the same time, my eyes periodically dart in semi-spasmodic sidelong glances, positive I’m being watched by angry moose from behind the trees.

But, imminent moose attack notwithstanding, I advance with gusto, especially since, even after I eventually get far enough from the last of the isolated houses so as to be completely free of artificial lighting, it’s proving to be an uncharacteristically clear night and the nearly full moon shines brightly, so much so that, aided by the reflecting snow, I barely need the head torch at all. Which is lucky, because in another great feat of preparedness, I brought no spare batteries.

A shot I manage to take with stiff, slightly trembling hands. Such as it is.


And so, after moving steadily along for about an hour and a half, I eventually approach the lake and, to my slight disappointment, see it’s surrounded by lit up houses and cabins. Hardly the wild camping spot I was expecting. Not yet discouraged, I decide to stray a bit away from the road and into a perhaps more secluded area. I advance no more than 10 metres before I realise the snow’s about waist deep and start having serious doubts about my ability to reach a properly isolated area, let alone clear it and pitch a tent there, especially since my hands are already starting to feel pretty damn stiff. I take a few more steps before returning to the road and advancing to the northern most tip of the lake, where I spend a few more minutes in silent contemplation. In the end, I decide that, for all my desire for a challenge against the elements, I have neither the experience nor skills nor, most likely, the constitution to accomplish what I’d set out to do here and, ultimately, I’d rather spend the night enjoying the warmth and comfort of Sina’s couch. 

Northern tip of the lake


And so, I start walking back, slightly disappointed, but certainly willing to try the whole thing again after I’ve managed to gain at least a basic grasp of winter camping. And, as it turns out, the night’s not entirely lost: as I leave the cluttered cabins around the lake and advance back on the road that cuts through the forest, I throw the occasional glance upwards, most of them contently catching the stars twinkle, until at some point my attention is drawn to the left: finally, under the clear sky, the Northern Lights are starting to take a more impressive shape than I’ve got used to. Darting at first as a subtle, green, wiggly line, it grows quickly in intensity and, before long, I’m standing still, gaping up at a cosmic, emerald serpent sidling its way on the firmament above me. Dumbfound, I remain motionless for a few minutes (or at least until the lack of motion makes me start to shiver), not even trying to get the camera out, because I’m quite sure my hands are frozen and I wouldn’t be able to press the shutter button, let alone attach it to the tripod and properly set all the parameters, just taking it all in. Soon enough, it’s done, it has passed above me, from left to right, and all that’s left now are the twinkling stars above and bright moon behind and a lingering feeling of elation and wonder.

The rest of the walk goes by uneventfully and eventually I reach Sina’s home, help myself to the hot tea I’d brought with me and happily go to sleep on the couch, despite failing in accomplishing what I’d originally set out to do.

One of the following mornings (or evenings, it's hard to tell if the sun is rising or setting), by the sea

And exploring the hills around Sina's home

Came across them one morning. May not look too scary, but the lady moose fixed her eyes on me as soon as I came into her field of view and never stopped staring intently until I left


Norway, December 9th
I know the date because it’s exactly one day before leaving Harstad. Being a weekend, Sina has a small party planned at her house. As the evening draws near, the three of us, together with Michael, go to Harstad to make the necessary shopping. Truly exciting stuff.

 
Sina, dodging the camera, Michael and Patrick

Having sushi at the mall. How very traditionally Norwegian.

Would totally pass for an Eastern European.


After we get back, the rest of the guests start arriving and we spend the night drinking, playing Cards against humanity and chatting. Emphasis on the first one, since it’ll prove to be significant for the next day. The Norwegians appear to be unimpressed by the Romanian ţuică I’d brought – they’d rather stick to beer and whatever soft-flavoured hard drinks they have. Some Vikings. Regardless, we have good fun and the hours fly by.
Try not to read too much into what's on the display, it's all good, clean, wholesome fun.


Norway, December 10th

After the last of the guests have left, I pretty much pass out on the couch only to wake up the next day, around 11 o’clock, with a splitting headache and an acute desire to not be alive. Sina seems to be in pretty much the same boat, only Patrick, with his annoying smirk and made up language, appears to have weathered the party with no hangover to show for it.

The time for good byes is short, and after groggily packing everything up and saying farewell to Sina and Patrick, I head to the bus station to catch the airport shuttle. On the flight to Oslo, spent miserably trying to dose off, I indulge in an overpriced can of Cola and, to my great gratitude, as we get closer to the capital, my headache starts to slowly yield.

Pretty soon, after taking the airport shuttle to the city, I step outside Central Station feeling fresh and eager to spend the rest of the evening exploring Oslo. As it turns out, I stumble upon a crowd of people gathered right outside the station in a rally urging Norway to sign the nuclear weapon ban treaty. 

There were a few mai speakers who voiced their concerns on a stange; there was also singing

As well as torches to be lit


My hotel is nearby, comfortably within walking distance, and after dropping my bags in the clean, cosy, albeit slightly small room, I head out for a pleasant evening stroll through central Oslo, finding my way to the Royal Palace and enjoying the holiday spirit in and around the Christmas Fair. 

Right down the street from my hotel. Didn't actually see any such activity, and I love how the put Jesus on top of they warning.

Festive mood









Norway, December 11th
I wake up in excess of four hours before my flight departs, with plenty of time to reach the Central Station and catch the train that arrives at the airport about 2 hours before take-off.  
 
Oslo in the morning

I buy my ticket and, unsure exactly what’s written on it, I assume the number “11” I find in the bottom right corner is the track number for my train. The announcement panels above seem to confirm it, since the train from track 11 is scheduled to leave for the Oslo Lufthavn (which, obviously, is Norwegian for airport and, equally obviously, is where I need to get to).

I make my way to the track and, with little else to do, just kind of hang around waiting for the train to arrive. At some point, 5 or so minutes before its scheduled arrival, a young lady asks me if this is the train that goes to the Gardermoen airport, to which I, beaming with confidence, say “most certainly not, it goes to Torp”. Luckily, another, much more aware, passer-by corrects me and points out that this is indeed the train to Gardermoen (which, obviously, is the opposite of where I need to go).



I realise that, by now, the train I was planning on taking to Torp has already departed. I’m left with few choices. I lug my backpack over to the bus station, only to find out that the next shuttle would reach Torp less than an hour before take-off. I scurry back to the train station to study the panels and realise that there is, indeed, another train that leaves shortly and while the very comfortable margin of error I’d guaranteed myself by waking up as early as I did was certainly gone, I might still make the flight in time. With little choice left, I board the train, anxiously checking google maps every 5 minutes to see how close I am to the airport.

In the end, I do make it in time. I’m not even the last one to board the plane, though as we take off, I can’t help but feel that, for all its great moments, this trip has had a lot of logistical and organisation-related problems that could have easily been avoided, had I spent a bit more time preparing. And, while I’d love to say lessons learnt, as time would prove – they were not.

I’ll end by once again thanking Sina for her hospitality, her Norwegian friends for being a fun bunch, Patrick for teaching me how to solve a Rubik’s cube (which I promptly forgot) and, I guess, Norway for being a pretty nice, stunningly beautiful, if prohibitively expensive country. Well done, Vikings, I look forward to visiting again.

PS. I also see Sina and Patrick have recently celebrated their one year anniversary, which is pretty damn impressive for a long distance relationship, so congratulations for that! And also, for now doubtlessly becoming internet celebrities.

Comments

  1. AM I INTERNET FAMOUS NOW?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Daca 40% din tineri nostri ar privi si trata viata asa ,recunoscand cand gresesc cred ca ne-am indrepta intr-o directie buna ca tara.

    Felicitari si cat mai multe experiente care sa-ti arate drumul bun

    ReplyDelete

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