Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Arctic Circle

Crossing the Arctic Circle has been on my “Things to do before I die” list for a very long time, and travelling to Hammerfest in Norway provided me with this long sought after opportunity. It wasn’t as grand as I had built it up in my mind, but it did not disappoint. When our bus pulled up to the line marking the beginning of the circle, all you can see is a tourism store and a vast expanse of almost barren land. As it was summer there was no snow, something my visions hadn’t counted on, so it kind of took a little of the atmosphere away, but the wind that whipped at my face made up for it. I spent most of my time at the tourism store queuing up in order to get Wellsey and my passports stamped. It took the best part of 30 minutes but at least now I can spend the time I waste lining up at airport customs queues looking at the stamp and remembering the time I actually achieved something I set out to instead of accidentally on purpose.

Progressing further and further north you notice that the green nature of the scenery begins to make way for brown low riding shrubs and you scratch your head trying to think about how anything, flora or fauna could survive a winter here. There is a marking by the side of the only highway to go to Hammerfest that shows how high the snow gets in winter and when standing next to it you see that it stretches high above your own head. Survival here in winter is not a matter of life or death, it’s just death. You wouldn’t stand a chance.

We stopped off at a small campsite nestled at the bottom of mountains that the word majestic does nothing to describe. I shared a cabin with Vikki, Nina, Annie and Sarah that backed onto a small bubbling brook. I never really knew what a brook was until I saw this place. I knew that it was a medium of water, but until I saw this place I had never had occasion to use the word when describing anything I had ever seen. Bigger than a stream, smaller than a river. It made the most wonderful sound that no cheesy meditation tape could ever emulate. Almost like it was singing. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps. The campsite might not have come with accessible showering facilities, but it did come with its own tepee, complete with reindeer skin covered seats and wooden tables ready for us to sit around and ward off the biting chill. Emerging from that tepee into the cold, black expanse of night, listening to the brook serenading you makes you feel alive. Alive, with all of your senses, from one to six, on alert.

Vodka has no language barrier, as I found out in that tepee. There was a Swedish lady of about 60 years of age making gestures to Matt’s vodka Smirnoff and asking another lady to translate “Where on earth did you get that from?” Seems not only does the Norwegian government hit the consumer with a 95% tax on alcohol but they also regular what alcohol can come into the country. Vodka Smirnoff’s are not on the green light list. We had an abundance of bottles in our Contiki bar so I went and bought one and gave it to her. She spoke no English. I spoke no Swedish, but we got the point across and for the rest of the evening she kept offering me cigarettes.

Contiki, for those who have not had the illustrious pleasure of travelling with them, is a budget 18-35yr travel company. This was my second trip with them having done a western European trip back in 2003. Seems that on this particular journey they took the whole budget concept to a new level and we ended up having to push start our bus in the mornings because the battery was not charging. I did manage to win €5 by guessing it was the alternator as the problem (don’t tell anyone but my little blue Corolla suffered the same problem back in 1998). This morning however we couldn’t push start the bus as it was parked on a dodgy incline so we waited for the equivalent of bus AA or NRMA. To pass the time away most of us slept.

Legend has it that trolls walk the hills of Norway in the dark of night but when the sun comes up they turn to stone. Littering the sides of the road are literally millions of little stone clusters where people have stopped to add their own little man to the legends. Pity Mick, Mark and some of the other Aussie boys didn’t see them as legends, but rather targets to go troll bowling. Or as it affectionately became known, trollicide! Thousands of the little stone clusters were brought crashing down by these boys and their well aimed rocks. To appease the trolls though, Mark and Mick spent a good 20 minutes building their own mega troll at a pit stop, whilst the rest of us were taking in the now common breath taking view. Or buying reindeer skins from the man who could give you a good discount on antlers in a 2-for-1 deal.

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