by David Evans
The definition of ‘vitality’ is Norway in the summer, where cows eat so much they wear udder bras. I’m not joking.
Sun at midnight is the antithesis of deep winter polar night. It emanates a glazed energy that makes grass grow lush and birds disoriented with insomnia.
Much is written about seeing the northern lights, but lazing under the midnight sun on the deck of an iconic Hurtigruten ship off coastal Norway is equally cathartic.
At 12:30am, well within the Arctic Circle, I was aboard the aptly named ship, Midnatsol – ‘midnight sun’. With not a ladybug’s breath of wind, I lounged in a deck chair and gazed at the oversized golden sun suspended low in the sky like a gong. Beneath it, the saw-toothed panorama of the fabled Lofoten Island chain stretched edge-to-edge on the horizon, bathed in a diffuse tangerine glow.
Before bridges connected the islands, it took nineteen boat rides to get from the farthest island to the mainland – ample fodder for dockside guardians of folklore.
‘I’m off to get some milk from the mainland,’ a henpecked fisherman would say, returning three days later with no milk, a contented smile and a tan.
There’s an old salt who rests his four-horsepower boat every fifteen minutes. When he had horses they needed a rest that often. Priceless.
‘Those mountains aren’t as big as the Rockies,’ drawled the pipe-smoking Abraham Lincoln lookalike lying next to me. I didn’t reply, lost in my own elation.
As I stared, trance-like, across the still water, something dark caught my peripheral vision. I turned to see a large Greenland shark break the surface close to the ship, its tell-tale dorsal fin flopping to one side as it slid gently beneath the inky, mercurial surface.
Abe saw it too. ‘Now you don’t see that in the Rockies!’
On board was a mix of nationalities: half Scandinavian and European, a third Canadian, a third Australian, a smattering of Americans – and one mathematically challenged writer. There was a particularly vocal Australian who managed to tell every passenger he was a former Mayor of scenic Launceston.
Lovely as Launceston’s Cataract Gorge may be, the mountains and coastline of Norway are another level. While it’s theoretically possible to get ‘fjord fatigue’, the changing scenery afforded by moving ship demonstrates that every natural feature is different and fascinating; each part of the Norwegian coastline has a unique, dramatic personality. Norway is no shrinking violet, yet the intricacies in the folds and shadows of its bold landscape are exquisitely subtle.
Small, brightly coloured fishing and holiday huts are one such delight along the coastline, some sprouting grass roofs for superior insulation. Picture book examples abound in coastal hamlets such as Reine and Senja. Specific colours originate historically from the status of the owner – red is common, as fish blood and oil were traditionally used as paint. How fragrant the sunny summers must have been! Yellow ochre was costly with white the most expensive, usually reserved for the head of the village. An exception is the town of Sortland which, in 1998, decided to stand out from the crowd and paint every building in shades of blue!
Many villages are serviced by wriggly roads and ambitious tunnels – one a whopping 24.5km long! Much of the coastline is remote, but as Norway is a wealthy and progressive country, public infrastructure is substantial and distant access is no longer limited to fisherman. There are even fishing places built for the disabled. Remarkable!
Cod fishing has been important in Norway since the Vikings, long before oil and gas enriched the country. The town of Henningsvær hosts the annual ‘Codstock’ music and culture festival, paying homage to the traditional way of life. Extensive racks of drying cod still line the shore throughout the Lofoten Island chain.
Further north in the regional hub of Tromsø, the promise of a midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral nearly failed to pique my interest, perhaps because I was enjoying a third wine in the ship’s bar. Thankfully, curiosity prevailed. Joining my fellow travellers, I was moved to tears by the poignant performances of the skilled singers and instrumentalists.
At 1am we stepped out of the cathedral, dabbing our eyes. The golden sun was there to greet us. Such was the sense of pulse and sparkle, the Frenchman beside me burst into his national anthem in full voice, his arms outstretched and face raised towards the sky. I witnessed similar incidents at various times in the journey, prompting the theory that perhaps the midnight sun has a similar intangible kinetic effect to that of a full moon.
After an enchanted sleep with rolled t-shirts blocking the sunny gaps around the window blinds, I was back on deck after breakfast to savour the ever-changing scenery.
‘Were those mountains caused by tectonic activity?’ I overheard a young Swiss lady ask the deckhand.
‘Nope, they’ve been there since Adam and Eve,’ said old Abraham Lincoln, lurking behind us. ‘Same as the Rockies.’
We collectively rolled our eyes. But I was in a spiritual mood. I bought him a drink at the bar and we spent the afternoon discussing tectonic activity and the science behind the birth of mountains. Abe turned out to be good company.
We travelled further into the Arctic Circle toward Nordkapp, ‘The North Cape’, the closest point in mainland Europe to the North Pole. Norway on steroids. The crisp bite in the air gave a sense of extreme latitude, even in the middle of summer. Here the mountains seemed sharper, the vegetation and villages more sparse, the water more mysterious – and ‘world’s most northerly golf course’ curiously plural. There were at least three.
The top of Europe was a fitting finale to an astonishing Norwegian voyage. With effervescent souls, we arrived in Kirkenes on a sparkling sea. Norway under the midnight sun is an epic production, perhaps the Hallelujah Chorus. I give it five stars. A must-see extravaganza.