Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Has anyone seen Tom? Tom, are you there? Where the **** is Tom? (part 4c of 5)

We drove a couple of 8 ½ hours days and we felt every single one of those hours. The main difference between this Contiki tour and my last one was that in Scandinavia you don’t stop in cities and towns everyday. On the Western Europe tours you usually see a different major city each day. On the Scandinavian ones you see a lot of trees, rocks and hills. Our campsite in Mo I Rana was by the side of the major E6 highway. There was a lake, a couple of camping cabins, a service station and a shop selling ski-dos and that’s all! It’s pretty boring and mundane, until you look at the lake. Not just glance at it, but really look at it. The water is like glass. You can see the reflection of life on planet earth staring straight back at you.

The days started to get longer with the sun travelling with us as we moved further north. It wasn’t unusual to have the sun up until 11pm and rise again at 3am. Whilst Wellsey (our camp cook) cooked dinner in the wonderfully erected tent, Andy, Mick, Mark and Matt threw a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy Frisbee around and there was a group of people playing cards at a nearby picnic table. After this stop, my fingers started to become increasingly number as the cold set in, and the names of places started to mesh together in my brain as individual ones begin to get lost in the connection between my brain and my mouth.

When you do a Contiki trip you get a list of optional extras and one of the ones I was looking forward to the most was climbing the Svartisen Glacier. It took over 1 ¼ hours to climb up rocky terrain and cliff face to it but it was worth every single moment. You know how you have those moments in your life that you feel so proud to be alive and to be exactly where you are at that moment in time. That glacier was life affirming for me.

To get to it you catch a small ferry boat 20 minutes up river where it pulls into a dock flanked by a rusty tin shed and a thunderous waterfall. The only clue that there is even a glacier there is a combination of the obvious (huge waterfall) and not so obvious (small hand sketched sign reading “this way”). My hiking boots at this point became the best investment I had ever made because weaving, almost haphazardly, behind the shed is the trail that signifies the beginning of your journey. The first part of the trail heads up the hill beside the waterfall. It is loose underfoot, and your feet flex over the oddly shaped rocks easily with a few hiccups where my trousers kept getting snagged on my heels. But it’s not too hard going, especially for American Matt (Army doctor currently serving in Germany) who powers up the track at lightning speed. For the rest of us mere mortals it doesn’t take long before you reach the next stage of the trek - the cliff face. To navigate along the cliff you need to follow the orange flags waving in the cool breeze. Problem with that is I am currently blind as a bat without glasses and couldn’t see an orange weather worn flag on a makeshift flag pole anywhere. Luckily Lee (tour driver) and Sarah were just in front of me and my very intelligent theory was to just follow them. I wasn’t a very graceful climber either and provided much entertainment as I stumbled, slid and stacked it towards each of the markers. Despite the many avalanche and falling ice warning signs most people continue past the “Stop Here” sign and continue their climb up to the actual glacier itself.

It kind of sneaks up at you. There are a few indicators that it’s coming, signs being one and huge chunks of ice floating in the lake another, but when it finally pops up over the next cliff platform it steals the breath right from your throat. Just like in a cyclone, hurricane or twister, you get the feeling of being inside the eye of a storm. There is an almost reverent silence. You can no longer hear the waterfall tumbling down towards the river system in the background. People’s voices seem hushed and the silence envelops you. Silence is, I now believe, nature’s version of the drumroll. Just before I saw it, I lost my footing and blindly grabbed onto the rock and looked up to find my next hand hold and instead I saw…

Actually touching it defies all words associated with feeling. Anything I attempt to write here will not do it justice, or describe it accurately. The colour is a thick, gluggy blue with splits in the ice that look as if a bear has clawed at it and scratched deep into its core. Touching it is, as you’d expect, cold but you can hear the ice crackling under the heat of your hand as the top layers melt away. I’ve climbed to the top of the world before (Jungfraujoch, 2003) but this is something different. Awe inspiring maybe… but so much more than that. Sitting there looking at this creation of nature you start to think about how it would have been so much bigger in just as little as 10 years ago. You also start to look at yourself and realise what a huge accomplishment it is for a kindy teacher from Sydney is climbing on, touching and yes, I licked it, a glacier that was formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s very easy to get lost in your own thoughts up there.

It’s also easy to get lost if you are a Japanese tourist on our tour too apparently. Instead of meeting back at 2pm as we were all supposed to, a quick head count revealed Tom and Jessica (both travelling Asian tourists) were missing). With the ferry coming only every 2 hours we realised that this was serious. Never can it be said that we left someone behind as 8 of us volunteered to stay back to start a search team. I have scribbled in the pages of my notebook times or departure, names of people in teams and what people were wearing as we set off up the track again. Wish I could drag it out for you but it was a fizzer really as one of the teams found Tom and Jessica within 25 minutes. Was very exciting though and I think we missed our callings with mountain rescue! It’s also good to see that the age old fire fighting tradition of “Hurry Up and Wait” is traversable into glacier rescue work. We got to sit on our butts for 1½ hours until the next ferry turned up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hurtling towards Hell (part 4b of 5)

Many of the days I spent in Norway were travel days as there were so many kilometres to cover to get up to Hammerfest but along the way we made some absolutely amazing stops. One of those stops was the Winter Olympic Bobsled track where we were offered the opportunity to hurtle down the course at speeds that caused my head to smash quite violently and unladylike against the metal cage. It was very scary but great fun. They strap special braces to your stomach and back so that the g-forces don’t do permanent damage to your spine and guts. You have to hold onto the smallest handles I have ever seen and just before they push your sled off at the start line you get an attack of the panics and want to scream “Let me out!” I am very pleased to announce though that my sledding team won third place. We were even awarded bronze medals at a mini award ceremony on the bus afterwards too. Photo - my bobsled team preparing for take off. I'm the scared one at the back.

We also stopped at Trondheim which is a beautiful and quaint little city located about midway up the side of Norway. I loved the feel of this place. It is home to only about 145,000 people and it certainly makes a difference to the 7.4 million people I fight with every day to get a seat on the tube in London. Most of the Trondheim townspeople are actually students studying at the local university. It was slightly chilly and I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like in the middle of winter as snow would cover the city like a big, fat, fluffy doona. I bet that they celebrate Christmas in style there! I could just see them hanging fairy lights and decorations through the trees and the snow lining the pavement.

Another stop was at the Geiranger Fjord which is an amazing valley and river system nestled in the crevasses of mountains. We took a boat cruise down the river and the scenes were simply stunning - beautiful, shimmering water at the base of monstrous mountains. Waterfalls cascaded down the rock faces, racing to meet the river like a lost child might race to its mother. Breath taking doesn’t do the fjord justice. It is a magical place where your imagination can run wild. It sounds clich├ęd to say that you almost expect dreams to come true there, and for one couple on our tour it did - Andrew asked Bree to marry him. Photo - Standing just above the Geiranger Fjord.

We pit stopped at Hell, a small dot on the map not that far from the Geiranger Fjord. Many people spend their faithful lives questioning the meaning life, of the existence of heaven and hell and I can safely assure you that yes, there is a place called Hell and it is in the “Middle-of-Nowhere, Norway”. What is in Hell, I can hear you asking? Well, as disappointed as I was not to meet the red horned little fellow carrying a pitchfork, he just wasn’t waiting for a train that day. The only thing in Hell is a train station, with a post box! That’s all. The station has only one platform. Trains come in, trains go out. And that’s about it. Hell was a strange experience for most, but more so for poor Ryan, who spent the night before becoming acquainted with some local ladies and reacquainted with the bottom of a few beer bottles, promptly overslept and was woken by his room mate 3 minutes before the bus was to depart. He grabbed his unpacked suitcase (I’m sure that the next hostel patron will love Ryan’s towel, undies and Aussie green and gold socks) and hauled his butt onto the coach. Sleep was all he could think about and didn’t seem to mind that the only part of Hell he saw was the flat top of the garbage bin! To add insult to his already fragile head, we decided that for his own safety Ryan needed to be tied into his coach seat. He was swaying dangerously from side to side in his slumber and as his seat with directly opposite the back door, we could see him tumbling out of his seat and down the back stairs at any moment. Imagine his surprise however, when he woke up at lunchtime and couldn’t get himself out of his seat. Photos above - The train station in Hell. Photo below - Ryan having a kip on a skip in Hell.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Oslo and the Viking games that will never be (part 4a of 5)

Norway is without any doubt, the most expensive country on the face of this planet. I knew that I would be financially hard up for this leg of my journey because Norway has notoriously high taxes but I was not prepared for the reality of paying the equivalent of $AU7.00 for a 300ml bottle of Coke! Plus as I was spending a great big chunk of tour time in Norway being frugal was the only way I was going to survive. Photo - Wellsey in the cook tent next to the girl's cabin.

We spent all of Saturday driving and arrived at our campsite in Oslo, Norway around dinner time. After Team Tent got to work putting the cook tent up and Canadian Dave purchased a wheelbarrow of dry wood, we settled down for the evening in front of the fire with some soup and pork chops for dinner. Andy, our tour manager, had been organising us into Viking Clans for a special Viking Games Tournament he had been talking about since Copenhagen. He even managed to locate a bag of goodies - helmets with horns, swords, axes and the odd looking blonde plaited wig. Sarah, a high school drama teacher, was in absolute heaven and declared that she would remain in Viking character for the evening. Unfortunately for the Viking Games, there was a dog show also scheduled at the same campsite that we were staying at, and the grounds were already full of dogs, their trainers and the officials. So the games were postponed...

That’s okay though, we found ways to entertain ourselves, usually at the bottom of a bottle. It was certainly amusing to watch people declaring themselves camp fire experts and then set about building only a flicker of flame. Kept you entertained for hours! Especially when Andy decided the best way to break a log in half was to get Canadian Dave to grab the other end and then they both ran at a tree trunk to smash their log against it so that it would snap in two. Probably could have worked, except that they had mistaken a metal flag pole for their “tree trunk” and only discovered their drunken mistake when the flag pole made a huge “ding” sound when the log collided with it and they left a massive black mark and dent in the base of it. Don’t think the caretaker and his wife were too impressed! Photo - Vikki and Barbara sitting next to the fire at our Oslo campsite wearing their viking helmets.

The next morning we got our first real glimpse of Oslo city. Unlike the sea side feel of Stockholm and the random nature of Copenhagen, Oslo actually feels like a city with structure, age and romantic tendencies. A prime example of this is the royal palace, where Yes, I did see another changing of the guard ceremony. The palace in Stockholm is right on the water, accessible by sea and land. It is surrounded by the city and can easily be mistaken for just another museum. The palace in Copenhagen is located on the fringe of the city centre, surrounded by the infrastructure of the economy and the embassies of its neighbours. Both palaces in Denmark and Sweden are functional, hiding their opulence and grandeur behind large and imposing stone buildings. The palace in Oslo is situated in a slight incline, nestled in what Jane Austen’s Catherine de Berg (Pride and Prejudice) would call “a pretty-ish kind of woods”, looking down the main street of the city. It gives you the impression of implied wealth rather than flaunting it in your face. The changing the guard ceremony feels the same way too. Instead of the grandeur we saw in Stockholm, it was rather simple, straight forward and classic.

I’m not a fan of galleries and museums but I am glad that didn’t pass up with opportunity to see “The Scream” at the National Gallery. There were lots of other artworks in there but really, art is art to me and nothing jumped out and grabbed me as fabulous. I’d much rather go and see the beautiful stained glass windows of cathedrals or the sparkling jewels in the treasury vaults.

The end of my day in Oslo was spent at the Kon-tiki Museum, which wasn’t a really a museum, more like a journey of discovery. It was all about Thor Heyerdahl and his expeditions as he tried to prove that the Egyptians could have sailed across the oceans to South Amercia to begin colonisation there. He did this by attempting to sail the same route in a papyrus boat, just as the ancient Egyptians would have. Heyerdahl also used the opportunity to do a social experiment and crewed the boat with people from different continents, backgrounds and races. He wanted to see if people with nothing in common could live and work harmoniously together. It took him three tries to cross the Atlantic Ocean but eventually he succeeded. Thor Heyerdahl also researched primitive colonies. He even took his new wife on her honeymoon to live for a year on a semi-deserted island with a tribe of pygmy people. They eventually had to leave because the tribe had discovered a substance like alcohol and were becoming violent whilst under the influence! Reading about his journeys is very inspiring and makes you think about what you plan to contribute to the world.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Stunning Sweden (part 3 of 5)

Arriving in Stockholm we went to the Nobel Prize Hall and Swedish Parliamentary Building. With all the hoopla that surrounds the Nobel Prizes, especially the peace prize, you would think that the official hall would have been magnificent and grand but in reality it is a brown brick building that has creaky floors when you walk down the corridors. The official room where they present the prize isn't even a room! It's a boring looking courtyard that they had to pop a roof on (there wasn't one in the original design of the building) because the snow build up in winter was too much to bear! The parliament rooms are old and maroon. Everything is in a shade of maroon. The tour was rather boring (I guess it is the word I would use to sum up the Nobel Prize Hall experience really) but I did enjoy learning about how the rafters and beams in the ceiling of main parliament room were exposed to represent the underside of a viking boat, where the first parliament meetings of Sweden actually took place.

There is also a Golden Room which is a reception room made up completely of small gold tiles. I am not sure what the designer was smoking when he came up with idea but even the Nobel Hall tour guide said that the Swedish people were ashamed of it and thought that it was an eye saw. Eventually the room gives you a headache and you are very glad to walk out of it to be faced with the mundane brown brick.

Most people travel overseas to see museums, art galleries, monuments. I travelled Scandinavia to see changing of the guard ceremonies! Not really, but it sure felt like it as I ended up seeing one at every royal palace I went to. None matched the pomp and circumstance of the Swedish Royal Changing of the Guard ceremony. And I include the English one in that group too. We were told that the ceremony would take about 40 minutes and is a lavish affair with horses and a band. True with the lavish affair and band bit, not so true with the 40 minutes part. I think it actually was closer to an hour and a half in the end. The ceremony itself is a awesome spectacle with horses, mounted guards, guards in training (all complete with Steve Urkell glasses - must have the same dodgy army optician) and canons. Unfortunately it bucketed down half way through the ceremony and the guards must have been extremely uncomfortable in their blue and white woollen uniforms. The horses didn't seem to mind though. I can't believe that the band were playing their instruments on the back on those horses in the pouring rain. Very skillful.

As grand and impressive as the changing of the guard ceremony was, it was actually more entertaining to watch the poor guard stationed in front of us who was in charge of keeping the crowd out of the way so that the horses could come through. He was tall, buff, had a rifle and a bayonet and still, he didn't stand a chance against a bus load of middle age Mediterranean women who were determined to get closer to the action. Even if that meant standing in the no standing zone when a platoon of cavalry were streaming toward them. The guard tried his hardest but he just couldn't fight them all off. They were coming at him from all directions. He had to call for back up 5 times. They were ruthless! When the back up arrived, they all lined up, removed their bayonets and then used their guns to push people back out of the square. They were yelling at people in a manner that, had I not have been standing behind the barrier, would have made me pee my pants. Very scary, but not scary enough to move the Mediterranean "mafia".

My favourite moment was actually a quintessential Aussie moment. Sarah and I were standing with a bunch of the guys off our tour. We had a good position right at the front of the barriers. We were all set to watch the action but a problem soon became apparent when the guard tried to get the Mediterranean masses to move on - they just stepped to the side in front of us. Which was still in the way of the guard, who by this stage has resorted to repeating his "No. You can't stand there. Move on!" speech in all 4 of the languages that he was no doubt fluent in. Still, they did not move. So, in the Australian spirit of lending a hand Dezzie, Mark and Mick lent over us, tapped the offending males in the group on the shoulders and told them to move. When they still didn't budge, a resounding (and loud) "Listen here mate, F*** O**" and a thumb in the desired direction was quickly issued. Now, I didn't see the face that went with the command, but Mick is a pretty big guy (6ft 4 at least - he's the guy in the red shirt kneeling down in the photo at the end of my last post) and not a skinny mini. I tell you, I have not see people move that fast before, ever! And I've seen people running from burning buildings!

We had a Contiki dinner that night which comprised of traditional Swedish food. Can't really recall what each of the pieces of food were that was on my plate, but I can tell you that it all was delicious. I got to talk to Wellsey, our camp cook, and Lee, our driver, which was really good. Last time I didn't get much of a chance to talk to our Contiki driver and tour manager. But maybe that was because I was too shy or I wasn't 18 and blonde! :)

As is the deal with budget Contiki adventures, everyone has to pitch in. At the beginning of the trip you are asked to put your name down next to a job that will be your responsibility for the tour. I had already been a cookie and a dishie (cook helper and dish washer) on my last trip so I put my name down next to the job listed simply as "tent" and thought nothing of it as I passed the clipboard behind me to the next person. Ha! "Tent" was actually putting up and pulling down the marquee style cook tent at each of our stops. It was also the most difficult job to have and as it turns out, the only job that no other female put her hand up for! So, for the entire tour I spent my job time working at 'erecting' and 'making flaccid' (the boys words, obviously not mine) that tent on "Team Tent" with 6 guys. And it was the most laughs I have had in a very long time. Can't tell you how chuffed I was when 10 days into the tour and 10 days into putting up and pulling down that white marquee Mick turns to Mark and says "Hey, there's a chick on Team Tent!". Yep, we had one hell of a switched on team!

Next stop, Oslo and then straight to Hell. No joke, I actually went to Hell which is conveniently masquerading as a town in Norway.