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Land of the Midnight Sun

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22 June 2009

James Innes Williams travels to Norway’s Finnmark region.

Norway - Day 1

As I write this it’s 1.30 a.m. and the sun is still shining in the sky above me. I’m up in the Arctic Circle, in Norway’s Finnmark region, checking out the area so I can give our members a better insight into some of the trips we can arrange here - both in the winter and summer months.

Tomorrow I will be heading out on a three-hour boat trip to catch king crabs - which I’ve just eaten and taste great - so hope to have some pictures of me with a bountiful catch! In the evening you’ll find me in a hot tub, under the Midnight Sun.

This daylight - and that’s what it is - is one of the strangest things. Eating dinner at 11.30 p.m. but seeing teenagers messing around on bikes outside, I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t three in the afternoon and all I had was jet lag. And more than that, it’s not that much cooler now, outside, than it must be in London.

I’m currently in Båtsfjord; tomorrow Syltefjord. Later we go to Berlevåg, almost the most northerly point of mainland Europe. The more famous, and by 12 miles more northerly, Nordkapp is not actually on the mainland, so as far as I’m concerned doesn’t count. No, it’s this region (and a little bit to the west) that constitutes the roof of Europe, reaching surprisingly far into the Arctic Circle. And to think, I’m supposed to be swimming in the next few days!

A quick word on getting here before I turn in. Flights from Heathrow to Oslo took a little less than two hours, and it was a similar journey up to Kirkenes just up from the Russian border - where my bags are still sitting. Then it was a propeller-driven bus-plane, hopping to a couple of other tiny villages -Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, being one of them - before arriving here in Båtsfjord. Actually it was surprisingly easy. Oslo airport is fantastic, possibly the best I’ve seen. I’ve not been to T5 yet, but I can’t imagine even it is as clean and well designed. Still, the beers were £9 a pop, which definitely counts against it.

Fingers crossed my bags arrive tomorrow, otherwise I’m in for a frosty boat ride. Right now though it’s finally time for bed. Now where did I put my sunglasses?

Finnmark itinerary details

Norway - Day 2

The group of journalists I’m travelling with set off from Båtsfjord at 10 a.m. - happily with our bags, which arrived early in the morning - and headed over for Syltefjord. Båtsfjord, the major town here, has a population of 2,300, so Sytlefjord, its tiny neighbour, is largely unpopulated. Indeed, all year-round residents upped sticks in 1989 but keep returning for the summer months. Going further back, the town itself moved lock, stock and barrel just after the Second World War, carefully marking each piece of timber in their houses so they could deconstruct them and build them again a few miles further into the fjord.

We came to venture out into the fjord and on to the Barents Sea in a high-speed boat. Dressed up in bright orange fleece-lined overalls, we truly were a picture of hardy trawlermen. And under the bright sun they at first seemed rather unnecessary. But as soon as the boat picked up speed and the Arctic waters sprayed on our faces, we were all grateful.

The sheer beauty of the snow-capped hills is quite remarkable. It’s Scotland but bigger. And the sea is the clearest I’ve ever seen. Nesting up on the rocks were hundreds of seagulls, sea eagles, puffins and what we all reckon were black cormorants. A truly amazing sight seeing them circle overhead.

Further on, the slabs of rock - often covered by hundreds of seals - were all bare. Their population clearly out feeding. And indeed we did spot a couple popping their heads out the water before ducking back in.

We motored on to the deepest part of the fjord, right in the middle. Here we grabbed a buoy and started to pull on its rope which extended 200 metres down, until a pod of king crabs appeared. These are truly massive things, with a leg-span of three to four feet for the biggest, which are about 20 years old. The smaller, younger ones have a sweeter taste, but the big boys are equally good. From three pods we must have brought at least 30 on board. The lucky ones were thrown back, while the less fortunate, after a short period of scrabbling up and down, were taken in hand and had their bodies smashed on the side of the boat, so that their legs came away - where the good meat is - and their bodies could be thrown back.

A while later and we were pulling up sea-snail pods. The stench of those is something else, but apparently they taste quite exquisite. We weren’t to find out though, as on our return we cooked up the king crabs and feasted solely on those, with a little bread. Superb.

We took a quick walk around the town, checking out the local museum - festooned with photos of the residents from the 1920s, some holding up their catch to the camera, just as we had done - and on to a local geologist’s house. Thought locally to be a little crazy, he looks like a cross between an aged Jack Bauer and Santa Claus.

Twenty years ago he built this cabin single-handedly with driftwood and other things found in the local area. He now makes his living searching for pieces of slate up in the mountains, and painting rather quaint pictures of them. Apparently they go down a storm in southern Norway, but they did nothing for me. He’d been up all night under the Midnight Sun getting more slate, and the back of his van, covered in about a foot of rock, was worth about £30,000 in the markets. Quite remarkable.

Now we have come to another cabin, right on the water’s edge. In a moment we will be having our dinner before jumping into a hot tub to enjoy the Midnight Sun, with perhaps a little Aquavit to hand. Personally I’m looking forward to warming up in the sauna afterwards. It’s a hard life, I’ll let you know how it goes!

Finnmark itinerary details

Norway - Day 3

So after I left you last night, I went to have dinner with our hosts for the night (just outside Syltefjord). Delicious Norwegian lamb, with potato dauphinoise and veg, followed by a long stint in an outdoor hot tub. It was the day of Midsummer celebrations, so a few bonfires could be spotted, to mark the celebrations.

Must admit it does seem a strange moment to mark, considering Britain had marked our longest day of the year on Sunday, while Finnmark won’t see nighttime again until late August. Even so, a few hours in a hot tub, beside a roaring fire, followed by a shorter stint in a sauna, is no bad thing. Refreshed and showered after, it was back outside (and yes, it still feels like 3 p.m. even though it’s midnight) to hole up in their little barbecue huts. Roasting reindeer meat over the open fire … poor Rudolf … but boy does it taste good – even if it smells a little like wet dog!

This morning we drove out to Kongsfjord, just to the west of where we had been. This village, populated year round, boasts a population of 35. The village shopkeeper, however, claims he has only counted 30. After a quick coffee, Christophe – the manager of the most northerly dive centre in the world – came to meet us. A brief overview later and we walked the few metres to the centre, to meet his wife and prepare for our dip in the Arctic sea – in fact still the Barents Sea. Unfortunately I can’t yet boast of swimming in the Arctic Ocean as that doesn’t start for another 1,000 kilometres, by Svalbard.

A few weeks ago – on a separate trip, not part of my Wexas duties – I took my first skydive over the Costa Brava in Spain. There I wore only my jeans and T-shirt, no helmet or other protection in sight. Today, in almost the very same clothes, I jumped into the Arctic sea – but didn’t get wet! This was all thanks to a dry suit, the first chance I’ve had to wear one.

Basically you tuck your trousers into your socks, slip on a thermal overall, much like a fitted sleeping bag, and on top of that comes the dry suit – fitted tight to the extremities, but loose on the body. Even so, reaching to put on wet suit boots and flippers was a fairly hard task. Currently the sea is around 14 C, yet such measures were certainly still necessary. In winter, during the dark months, many more clothes can be worn below. And I’m happy to report not a drop of water came through.

On a tight schedule as we are, we only had a quick sample swim around the harbour, spotting some interesting seaweed, a few sea urchins, and some of the most beautiful jellyfish I’ve ever seen. Just a few tentacles stemming from a small body, but each leg a vibrant multicoloured extension. Supposedly when you shine a torch at them, they glimmer in all their glory. Sadly I didn’t have an underwater camera to capture them for you.

A short boat ride away and you’re at Norway’s coral reef, teeming with all sorts of life, where avid bird watchers have the chance to see puffins dive bombing the water in search of a meal. All sorts of other opportunities are available at different times of year, whether snorkeling or scuba diving. When I come back to see the Northern Lights (and I will, I’m just not yet sure when), it’s certainly something different to consider doing.

In the afternoon, having moved up the road to Veines, we took a hike along the peninsula, covering about five kilometres. What was once the sea floor remains covered in sea urchins and other geological phenomena. I can see now how the driftwood-house builder from yesterday can so happily spend his nights looking for lichen-covered slate. Some of the patterns they create, quite different to what you would find in Britain, are truly artistic.

Also scattered across this landscape are the odd German battlement, built to stall the Russians. Considering the cold that can take hold, it’s amazing what they made their prisoners do. Even more awe-inspiring is the fact that humans have been living here for the last 6,000 years. I hope my images – displayed only in a small format here – can do the place justice.

I’m now just back from dinner – a fine meal of Norwegian cod, but with whale meat to start. The dark meat of minke whale has the texture of salmon, but a wholly different taste, much richer than any sea-dwelling creature I’ve ever eaten. I just hope they aren’t on the endangered list.

Tomorrow brings a lesson in metal engraving and another hike – this time around Berlevåg. Remember, if you like what you’re reading, Wexas can arrange similar itineraries tailored to your needs. Follow the link below for some holiday ideas.

Finnmark itinerary details

Norway - Day 4

Walking from Vienes for all of ten minutes and we were back in Kongsfjord to learn about direct engraving. The artist, an Italian, has produced some remarkable portraits of various famous people. The detail is quite staggering. She, of course, used zinc covered in wax, while we, for a quick sample, engraved plexiglass. Looking out the window I drew the buildings sat atop piers. The artistry really wasn’t very good, but the final artwork looks surprisingly good - for me anyway. Set in dark orange it has a good sepia effect.

After that we journeyed on to Berlevag and after a quick lunch at the local fisherman’s café, set off up the hills. The landscape here is much like that of the rolling hills of Scotland, albeit with the odd German gunpost. The small valleys become snowcovered in winter, producing a real half-pipe, superb for snowboarding, should you be keen to make the walk. There is very little European mainland north of here.

Then we travelled back down to Kjolnes and are currently staying in the houses beside the lighthouse. Its much more a hostel than anything else, but in years to come should be renovated to a better standard - thanks to government funding. I’d much recommend staying in the lovely houses in Vienes - with their underfloor heating.

Even so, its definitely worth checking out the lighthouse here on the small peninisula. Its properly gusty but truly beautiful, with the waves crashing against the shore. Our host, Esther, treated us to a song, and the acoustics of the lighthouse provided the perfect amplification.

Now we are drinking to celebrate our amazing trip to the Finnmark region, ready to fly home early tomorrow morning. This summer has been much fun, enjoying the midnight sun. Personally though I think the landscape would come into its own during the dark season. The Northern Lights here, away from any light pollution while the lighthouse swings its beam 360 degrees should be truly astounding. Speak to our consultants for the latest rates and deals, and for a further insight. I’ll be filling them in on my time here on my return. I hope you’ve enjoyed our inaugural blog, and hope in future internet connections allow us to update you more rapidly.

Until next time...

Finnmark itinerary details

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