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Norway: Oslo, Tromso
Tromso, Norway: Gateway to the Northern Lights
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
When the night sets, drama in the sky unfolds in and around this little town Tromso. Dubbed as Paris of the North, Tromso is 2000 kms. from the North Pole. It’s an important location for studying the Northern Lights, the Arctic environment, fisheries, climate change, oil resources in the ocean and other topics.
I was not part of any scientific group though. My main purpose of being in Tromso was as a tourist to view the phenomenon of Northern Lights, scientifically called Aurora Borealis and to experience some activities in the snow. Accompanying me were 6 of my friends… each one anxious to witness nature’s light show and the life in the wilderness.
Tromso is a 2 hour flight from Oslo, the Capital city of Norway. The town was founded in 1794 and from 1850 onwards Tromso was central in fisheries and other ocean based activities. Later on it became the starting point for several famous expeditions in the Arctic waters and in the race to be the first human on the North Pole. The town has a population of about 70,000 - 60,000 of them live around the town. In winters, when the sun is hardly up, shops close by 4PM. The town comes to a standstill thereafter… save for a few nightclubs and restaurants.
We were to be in Tromso for 4 nights. 2 of the nights were kept aside to chase the Northern Lights. After coming all the way, we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Good to know, that there’s absolutely no guarantee that you will be able to witness the happening. To put it bluntly, you need to be lucky and you need to be with experienced guides - nicknamed ‘Aurora Chasers’.
We had help at hands during our stay in Tromso. For the Northern Lights, our guide would be Kjetil (pronounced Shaytil) Skogli. He is a renowned photographer and Northern Light guide. He charges more than what others do, but then I found him to be totally involved and committed. He must have seen Northern Lights a thousand times, but when he was out with us he was as anxious and eager as we were. At the time of writing he charged NOK 1750 per person per outing.
For our other activities, we were in good hands of Lyngsfjord Adventure. This is one great bunch of guys who organize many activities in summers as well as winters. They are the owners of Camp Tamok, which is about 75 kms away from Tromso. The camp is a gateway for their activities. We were booked to experience dog sledding, reindeer sledding, snow mobile, snow shoeing and a stay in the wilderness cabin. I was delighted by the excellent service provided by their team. To be honest, you hardly find such service involvement in Europe. The team stood out. Kudos! The charges for various activities range from NOK 950 to NOK 1495. At the time of writing 1 Euro fetched 7.6 Norwegian Kroner.
We landed at Tromso at 12 noon. It was already getting dark. During my visit in December, the sunrise was at 11:15AM and the sunset at 12:15PM. About an hour of light! Lyngsfjord Adventures had organized a taxi for us. For our stay in Tromso we were booked at Radisson Blu which was located in city center and was adjoining to the sea. The rooms were small but comfortable. The breakfast they offered was quite sumptuous. The day activities that we booked included a hot lunch or dinner as the case was and transportation from the hotel to Camp Tamok. My room was on the 8th floor and overlooked the town and part of the sea.
By 3 PM, we were ready to roll. Since we had the rest of the day on hand, we decided to take Tromso’s famous cable car ride up in the mountains. Tromso is an island. Every time we went out for an activity we had to cross the Tromso Bridge which in itself is a famous landmark. The cable car point was just across the bridge. The short taxi ride cost us NOK 260. Be warned, Norway is indeed expensive!
A trip up the mountains (421 meters above sea-level) using the cable car cost NOK 105 per person. At the top, it was real windy. It had snowed earlier leaving behind fresh powder. Low temperatures can be bearable but due to wind, the chill factor takes the toll. A few cross-country hikers with headlamps were with us and without wasting anytime, they were out. We restricted our movements within a few meters of the enclosure! A viewing deck gives an excellent view of Tromso and miles beyond. We spent about an hour on the mountain and took the cable car back.
We called for a taxi to take us to our next stop – The Polaria. The taxi ride lasted for about 10 minutes but cost us NOK 360.
Polaria is housed in a very distinctive building that represents ice floes that have been pressed up on land by the rough seas of the Arctic. Polaria has an Arctic aquarium, interesting knowledge-based exhibits, a panoramic cinema, and a gift and souvenir shop. In the panoramic cinema, you can look forward to the Ivo Caprino film "Svalbard - Arctic Wilderness". A little auk takes you on an airborne trip with you in a helicopter, along the west coast of Spitsbergen - the largest island in the group known as Svalbard. The entry fee to the Polaria is NOK 105 per person.
We walked back from the Polaria to our hotel which was just about 10 minutes away. Dinner that night was the food that we had brought along. Our snow adventures would begin tomorrow.
After enjoying a sumptuous breakfast, we were ready in the hotel lobby. As scheduled, we were picked-up at 8:45AM. We would be going dog-sledding. A Lyngsfjord volunteer drove us to Camp Tamok. The 75 km drive takes just about 2 hours. At the camp we changed into insulated body suit, boots, gloves and head wear, readying us to negotiate the great outdoors. We drove a short distance where anxious dogs were ready to pull us.
We were given brief instructions on the controls of dog sledding. We formed teams of two. While one member will sit on the sled, the other would be the driver. We would trade places on the return leg. 8 dogs, fully energized, began the pull. I was impressed with the strength the dogs had. For the first few minutes of the drive, we were going a bit crazy, but soon we got the handle on the situation. The ride took us through the beautiful Vass Valley. The area is totally inhabited with only forests and mountains for company. Out in the wild, the dogs are absolutely at home. Total journey was for about 15 kms and is completed in an hour or so. Enroute, the dogs stop for their nourishment… fresh snow!
After sledding, we were back at the camp. In a Sami tent, we were served a thick hot broth and Sami bread. The meal was simple but delicious. A couple of bowls made for a very nourishing lunch. Post lunch we got bad news. Since it was not snowing as expected, our snow-mobile trip as also snow-shoeing need to be cancelled. The reindeer sledding was on, but not in the wilderness… but on a ground in circles!
This was the last news that we wanted. But so be it. We were in the wilderness where nature rules. Lyngsfjord team was willing to refund our amounts but that was not our agenda. Instead, we replaced our activity with a fishing trip!
We left the camp at 2PM and were at the hotel at 4PM. At 6:30PM Kjetil Skogli would pick us up – thus would begin our first chase of the Northern Lights.
Kjetil’s van sits 8. That’s how we had planed our group. Kjetil with 7 of us would mean we would be on our own. Of course, you don’t have to make a group of 7. Kjetil is quite a busy man… he can easily find other guests to fill up his SUV.
Aurora Chasers study the weather before picking you up. Essentially they look for cloudless skies. As they drive, they are also in touch with other guides for updates. Frequently, they stop their cars and take pictures of the sky in the hope of spotting ‘green traces’… they are visible to the camera but not to the human eye unless, their intensity is strong.
The chance of spotting Northern Lights is away from city lights. The light pollution diminishes the human vision. That’s the reason why, chasers drive distances… away from lights and under clear skies. Despite finding these conditions, there is no guarantee because at the end of the day, action has to happen in the sky… collision of solar particles with gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
We drove for about 2 hours on a road named The Northern Light Route. Had we gone 90 kms more, we would have reached the Finnish border. At one spot, we traced a green band and that’s where we parked our van, set up our cameras and began playing the waiting game.
Our cameras easily spotted the green band across the sky. And to pacify ourselves, we congratulated each other. After about an hour, something began to happen up there. Green waves began to appear and within a few minutes the entire sky, up above, presented us with dancing, green images. Boy, this is what we had come for all the way. The show was over in under 10-minutes, but we had no regrets. We had finally seen the phenomenon of Aurora Borealis.
The occasion called for celebrations. Hot coffee and cookies. Kjetil carries with him this stuff… if nothing else there’s coffee out there to cheer you up in the bitter cold. We turned back at around 11PM. By 1AM we were back in our room… delighted. Today we had chased about 250 kms. Will our chase tomorrow bear fruit?
After breakfast the next morning, we were ready for reindeer sled driving. By 11AM we were at Camp Tamok with a brief stop enroute to a take a few pictures and fill up gas in our van. Like mentioned earlier, lack of deep snow thwarted our plans to explore the wilderness. However, to give us the feel, we had a few round of reindeer sledding in an open ground near the camp. After the ride, our Sami guide taught to lasso and gave us detailed account of how a reindeer is slaughtered for its meat, organs and skin… of course, it was just action… thankfully it was not a live demonstration!
Reindeer sledding is the oldest form of transportation in the north and the Sami culture. Norway is the country with the largest population of Sami people. There are about 40,000 of them, most living in the village of Karasjok. Sami people have their own parliament, working to represent the Sami people and to promote their unique culture. They have their own flag in red, blue, yellow and green with a circle that represents the sun (red) and the moon (blue). These colours are also found in the detailed embroidery on the traditional Sami clothing.
Most of the Sami people are known for their semi nomadic mountain lives, constantly moving reindeer flocks between the summer grazing land by the coast and the Lapland Tundra in the winter. They easily travel 600 kms every year and are accustomed to living at minus 35 degrees Celsius! Reindeer meat is their staple diet.
After having our hot broth and Sami bread, we were back to our hotel at 4PM anxiously waiting for Kjetil to take us on our second Northern Light chase.
We set out at 7PM sharp. The day’s weather forecast prompted us to drive in direction near the coast. This was our first trip out without having to cross the Tromso Bridge. After driving for about 30 minutes there was still no sign about clear skies. Clouds were looming large. A message from a fellow Aurora Chaser, motivated us to turn back, and proceed in the direction we set the previous night. Today, we did not take the Northern Light Route, instead, we turned right exactly in the opposite direction. At about 10PM we spotted a good parking site with clear skies.
Photographically speaking, the location was perfect. Snow in the foreground, nice trees in the middle ground and hills as a backdrop. We got a very faint green spec and our hopes increased. To beat the chill, Kjetil made a nice camp fire. We waited for 2 hours and nothing happened. Finally, we called it a day and returned back to the hotel at 2 in the morning. Mission unsuccessful. Thank God, we had seen the lights the previous night.
The next morning, at 10AM we walked to the pier which was just 2-minutes away. We would be going fishing aboard Soroya Havcruise. The owner couple Gulli & Monika Pedersen made sure we were properly looked after. We sailed for about 30 minutes and anchored in the waters that had dense population of cods. We were briefly trained with the fishing technique. As assured, there was plenty of fish to catch. As soon as the bait was lowered, each one us could grab a cod… it all appeared so simple. The largest catch of the day was an 11kg cod. Of course, we dropped the cods back into the waters. Only the choices ones were retained… for lunch.
Since most of us were vegetarians, Monika had prepared delicious pasta. For the rest the cod cast its magic. Fish as fresh as fresh could be. By 1PM we were back on the pier. We packed our bags and were ready to check-out. Tonight we would spend the night in the wilderness cabin at Camp Tamok.
At 4:45 PM we were driven to Camp Tamok. The camp has 2 sleeping options. A Sami tent and a log cabin. The comforts of the cabin was what we sought. After a simple dinner (broth and bread) we lit a camp fire, set our cameras and hopes that the Northern Lights would show up!
At around midnight, a faint band of green showed up. We were delighted. The band never got brighter, but at least we could see the light one more time. At 1 in the morning we rolled in the bed… comforted by a wooden stove that kept the cabin warm. The temperature that night touched minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The team at the camp cooked a great breakfast for us. The toilet wasn’t exactly a ‘hole in the snow’ but almost near to that. Wooden planks and an enclosure made the experience tolerable. Sauna and a hot water tub were ready for us. Scrubbing our semi-nude bodies in the cold outdoors sitting in a hot tub was a different experience altogether.
At 10AM we left the camp. We were dropped at Radisson Blu where we kept our bags. Our flight back home would leave at 4 in the afternoon. That gave us time to explore the Polar Museum, have lunch and walk the town one last time.
Polar Museum was a 5-minute walk from the hotel along the pier. The museum is housed in a warehouse and its exhibits, spread over 2 floors, highlight the life in the Arctic as well as many early expeditions. Majority of the exhibits show how Arctic Foxes and Seals were trapped and hunted.
After spending an hour, we walked through the main street witnessing some life. In the past few days that we were there, we had seen no life on the town’s main roads. Lunch was at Peppes Pizza.
At 2:30, a taxi picked us up for our 10-minute trip to the airport. By the time I reach home I would have spent nearly 30 hours between change of planes and airports – Tromso to Oslo to London to Mumbai to Pune.
Tromso Image Gallery Photo viewer
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