With an introductory splutter, the public address system announced, first in Norwegian, then in English and German, that we were summoned by King Neptune to assemble on the after-deck to receive our icy baptism. During the night a few hours previously we passed a small island at exactly 66°33’51’’ north, marked by a globe tilted on its axis. This indicates the position of the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for at least two months in winter, but makes up for it in summer.
We were travelling by the Hurtigruten (‘coastal express ferry’), that links the coastal towns of northern Norway with the rest of the country, with two vessels, north and south, calling every day summer and winter at 34 ports along the way. Some stops are for only half an hour, or during the night, but others are longer, stopping for anything up to six hours and where shore excursions are possible. One of the interesting advantages of the trip is that the ferry is also used by locals making short journeys and as a result new faces appear all the time. Ports visited during the night in one direction are called at during daylight on the return journey, missing none of the fascinating towns and villages.
Starting at Bergen, Norway’s second city, where North Sea oil activity has beaten deep sea fishing into second place, we had already called at the art nouveau town of Ålesund and Trondheim, once the capital of Norway and where its kings are still crowned in a dual ceremony with Oslo. There is a royal palace tucked away without fuss behind the main shopping streets.
Our floating home for the two-week-long voyage was the MS Nordstjernen (North Star), a 2,196 tonne veteran built in 1956. Being so old and small means it doesn’t have the refinements found on its 15,000 tonne big sisters. Refinements such as stabilisers as we later discovered while crossing the Barents Sea, were not available in 1956, but what it lacks in modern amenities is certainly overcome by the friendly old-world atmosphere, and more than made up by the excellent standards of its on-board catering. Not only do the Hurtigruten ships carry passengers, but all carry goods such as the pallets of cement, rock wool and other bulk cargo we watched being loaded into the hold, plus six kayaks lashed down as deck cargo. Our worries that these were alternative travel arrangements disappeared when they were off-loaded one night. Unlike the bigger ships where cargo is loaded through a massive door in their sides, Nordstjernen does not carry cars, but it still serves as an essential link, the life-blood of towns along the way. In return ferries collect such things as the dried fish still popular with Italian and African markets.
The Norwegian coast is lined by thousands of islands, some with fairly large towns, but others supporting only a handful of houses, or even none. As a result much of the voyage is along sheltered channels where the calm waters make it almost like sailing along a canal. Here the captain can show off his skills by navigating tricky sections such as the man-made Risøyrenna cut where the sea bottom is only a metre below the ship’s hull, or by making 90° turns through the seemingly impossibly narrow gap of the Stokksundet where German Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to grab control of his yacht. Not surprisingly this annoyed his pilot so much that he pushed the Kaiser aside saying ‘I’m in charge, so leave me alone!’ Realising his mistake the monarch apologised and afterwards gave the pilot a specially inscribed gold watch.
Keeping well to the seaward of the awe-inspiring white mass of the Svartisen glacier, the second largest in Norway, we reached the important oil and gas servicing town of Bodø. Beyond is the first open water crossing where a line of jagged peaks make up the Lofoten Wall. The ‘capital’ of Lofoten is Svolvær where racks of cod dry beneath the towering craggy sides of the ‘goat mountain’, named from the twin horns of its summit. Beyond is narrow Raftsundet, lined by peaks rising to over 3,000 feet, it is the longest stretch of difficult water, but one the captain nonchalantly steamed through at a steady 15 knots.
Snow down to sea level even in late March reminded us that we were now well into the arctic zone, sailing towards Tromsø, the largest city of the far north. With its evocatively designed Arctic Cathedral and memorial to the explorer Roald Amundsen it reminded us that we were entering latitudes level with the northern coast of mainland Canada and the top of Siberia; if it wasn’t for the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, the sea and land would be covered by ice a mile or so thick. Hammerfest is a few hours sailing further north and while a night stop is made, it is during daylight on the way south that gave us more time to explore its links with the other arctic explorer, Fridtjhof Nansen. A sculpture version of his sturdy cockle-shell of a boat the ‘Fram’ (Strong), stands as though fixed in ice as it was on his courageous attempt to drift with the ice across the North Pole; in theory it was possible and the Fram’s unique design withstood the massive pressure, but while currents at first took him well towards the pole, they changed direction and he ended in northern Siberia.
We were now starting to sail east and into the Barents Sea, where the only land between northern Norway and the North Pole is the bleak isolated archipelago of Spitzbergen, home of polar bears and hardy Russian coal miners. It was about here that we passed our sister ship ‘Lofoten’, a mere 25 years old against our 54. Whenever Hurtigruten ships pass they always salute each other, a charming custom, but this time some younger members of Nordstjernen’s crew decided to attack it with powerful jets of water. In theory this was fine, but what they hadn’t allowed for was the wind and it all came back soaking everyone who expected a little fun.
Leaving the ship at the tiny port of Honningsvåg, a snow plough took us in convoy to the North Cape, at 71°10’21’’ north, the most northerly point of Europe. A huge globe stands on top of the high cliff of the cape and an underground visitor centre for those who don’t want to endure the sub-zero temperature. Standing on this point it was difficult to realise that there were very few other humans between us and the North Pole. It was hard to tear ourselves away from this evocative place, but as we did my eyes drifted westward towards a spit of land about a mile away where Knivskeloden Point seems to jut further out to sea, but being almost at sea level, the Norwegians can be excused for ignoring it in favour of the more dramatic North Cape.
The advantages of stabilisers or at least our lack of them became apparent while crossing the Barents Sea that night. Considered to be one of the wildest stretches of water in the world we soon realised that not only were we in open waters, but we were experiencing one of the forty-odd storms the area gets each year. Fortunately all thoughts of rough weather disappeared as we steamed through thin ice into Kirkenes, the turning point of the journey. Snow six to eight feet deep still lined the roads of this little frontier town a mere five miles from Russia and where road signs are in both Norwegian and Russian. Unlike most of Eastern Europe, the people who live in this part of Norway have a great respect for the Russians. It was they who liberated Kirkenes in 1944, long before southern Norway, but unlike the rest of Europe the Russians left as soon as possible, and the only record of their ever being in the town is the statue of a Russian soldier erected by the grateful community.
Things military but of a gentler nature can be found in the little fishing town of Vardø. There is an earth banked fort dating from a time when Czarist Russia set their eyes on the ice free ports along the coast, but its guns were never fired in anger. However, one gun is still fired and it marks the reappearance of the sun each year and also a day’s holiday for the local school children. Vardø fort is also the home of the most northerly tree in the world, a mountain ash that is carefully wrapped in protective sacking before winter and unwrapped in summer.
The days seemed to go much faster as we steamed south, but there was no hint of boredom. Certainly we had previously stopped at places like Stokmarknes in the night, but this was the birthplace of Hurtigruten, where the incongruously high and dry old MS Finnmarken is set above a modern museum devoted to the history of the company. Steaming down narrow Raftsundet towards Svolvær in the Lofotens, we were met by a small boat and by a little careful manoeuvring, foot passengers were able to take a side cruise into the even narrower Trollfjord where sea eagles ever hopeful of a fishy handout swooped down. Further on we passed the stately Seven Sisters ridge made up so the story goes, of seven troll princesses turned to stone at daybreak while fleeing the evil troll Prince Hestmannen who fired an arrow at them in anger. It missed but pierced neighbouring hat shaped Torghatten Mountain, leaving a hole which can still be seen to this day.
Norway’s oil-based industry becomes more and more apparent as the ship sails south. The major oil-fields are too far out to be seen from sea level, but shore based gas terminals and a refinery together with monster tankers and liquefied gas carriers are all too evident, a reminder that unlike other European countries Norway is investing its oil-based wealth in such important things as a well funded state pension scheme. Kristiansund has a statue of dried fish of all things, but this once important industry is very much overshadowed by the strangely shaped supply vessels waiting to service oil and gas platforms out in the North Sea. With a night’s sleep behind us the last leg of the journey went in a flash with the Nordstjernen acting like a homing pigeon on its way back to Bergen, its final destination and for us the end of an epic journey. It was hardly a cruise, more an adventure.