Our decision to go to Tromsø was a bit of a knee jerk reaction. We hadn’t planned anything for the long bank holiday and the cheapest flights left were to Norway, so it seemed like a good last minute option, particularly with the weather in the UK packing in. We were missing out on the recent Chess Olympiad, one full of excitement and suspense – apparently two contestants died!
Flying in and quickly transitioning to the centre city, we walked around trying to find a place to eat, which was harder than it sounded. Everywhere was expensive, Disneyland expensive! Finding a place with a meal that was less than £30 was difficult. Eventually we found a place with Norwegian Tapas – cured reindeer, cod, salmon and a few scallops. On leaving we saw the arctic sun set late at around 11pm for a twilight that lasted through to sunrise.
Picking up our camper in the morning was a bit of a surprise. The Volkswagen rolled up fully painted in flowers and decked out on the inside with reindeer pelts, russian nest egg dolls, troll figurines and pink lights. After a bit of effort, we were shown how to roll out the bed, use the spirit cooker and work the fridge.
Driving a few hours south to the Polar Park in Bardu, we weaved in and out of the fjords, past the hills and trees, unspoiled by pasture and urban centres. A few fishing villages were dotted around the place and you could see the Norwegians out and about, roller skiing, nordic walking and cycling. Pulling into the Polar Park we got to see the Arctic animals fed, the big event of the day. The enclosures included lynx, snow fox, wolves, bears, reindeer, musk oxen and moose – all found in the deep wild of Norway.
We stuck around a bit longer and got to meet the parks latest litter of six wolf puppies. These wolves were in the process of being socialised with humans and etiquette was that we were to “do as the dogs do”, which meant giving them big kisses. Mitch took this a bit far though (see the photos)… They were still inherently wild and more inquisitive than domestic dogs, but once comfortable were all over us.
Getting out of the park was a nightmare. Turns out the fridge we could “leave on” overnight sucked the battery dry in 3 hours. Mitch pushed the car around the parking lot a few times with the help of some of the staff. Stig, the main park ranger tried to jump start it, then helped tow the van with his quad bike and we got it started. A few more hours of driving to get the battery juice up took us around the beginning of the Lofoten Islands and up to our nights stay in Foldvik. Freedom camping is commonplace in Norway, you don’t go further than a few kilometres without seeing some campers parked up, cooking some hearty meals. We managed to find some groceries, although they were, as expected; really expensive, so we tried to keep it to a minimum – making a pasta with tomato sauce. The site was a little exposed, with the exit facing downhill (Mitch wasn’t sure the van would start the next morning) so it got a bit cold. Another camper nearby largely ignored us and was quite happy being left to his own serenity.
Sleeping in and starting the car on first turn was a bonus. A long drive ahead through Senja island was on the cards. In Sorreisa we picked up a couple of German backpackers headed to Finnsnes. They didn’t talk much over the next half hour, so we were happy it wasn’t for too long. After they left, we noticed the butchers knife we had used to cut the peppers and stir the pasta sauce was left out on the floor in the back of camper – in plain sight of our passengers. The sauce had “congealed” a bit and we figured this was probably why they didn’t talk much.
Senja island is popular for its scenic landscapes, in particular around the Svandalen Naturreservat National Park. Parked up all along the sides of the road were cars, with no owners in sight. After following their lead we parked up nad took a hike into the wilderness. Half a kilometre from the road we found numerous retreats, like writers hideouts, nestled in the landscape. The air up here was silent and the air pure – an idyllic retreat in both the winter white and the summer full of red lingonberries (Mitch wouldn’t let Tam eat any because in NZ little red berries aren’t always agreeable, same went for the mushrooms she found). Driving further around the bays we met a Swiss photographer (www.dia.ch) who gave us some really good tips of places in Senja to go visit and what to look out for. The first sight was the jagged Okshornan range, viewed from Norways most expensive toilets. Second was a small beach around the point, with little huts of dried fish and clear cold waters (Mitch manage a plunge and although cold the waters weren’t as bad as expected). Third was Husøy, a small island fishing village that is famous because of a recent Norwegian TV show, where all the women were taken to the Canary Islands and the men left for two weeks to fish and look after the children. Here we made use of another campsite/carpark where we cooked up speck and eggs on the trusty cooker.
On the ferry from Botnhamn to Brensholmen we joined the many other passengers avoiding the 4 hour drive around. From here we crossed the bridge to Sommarøy for a hike up a rocky steep path, helped by a green rope to get a good view out from Hillesøy, over the fjords and Håja Island, the muse for the famous Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø. En route to Lauklines for our overnight stay Mitch slammed on the brakes when he spotted a wild moose at the waters edge. It was a bit too shy, taking off up the hill with Tam in pursuit with her camera.
Getting up early we chatted to one of the neighbours who owned the cabins. He mentioned that this summer was the warmest on record since 1936 due to the persistent easterlys off Russia. This wasn’t a good thing for the fishing however, with the resulting currents pushing most fish west to Greenland. Our morning charter boat skipper, Chaz, turned out to be from Yorkshire and when the fishing dried up in the UK, he drove off across the North Sea to Norway. Today, we were his only charter passengers. He took tours year round, including the endless nights of winter. In March, the cod spawn in the fjords and it becomes the biggest sex, drugs and rock and roll party underwater. He recounted stories of pulling in a 20kg male cod and having it ejaculate litres of sperm all over the deck. Most of his custom was rich Russian tourists in search of Halibut, a large flatfish and a rare catch that get up to 120kg. Tam on her line first touching the bottom caught a large cod. Her beginners luck only got better hours later catching a large halibut. Mitch had to help wind it in as it was putting up a really good fight, on two occasions taking a look at the boat and descending down 50 odd metres for another battle. Eventually, Chaz was able to gaff it with a large hook and the idea was to let it tire itself out then bring it on board. Chaz was already sizing it up (40kg approx) and thought he would have a good meal for the whole village. The fish had other plans though, slipping free of the hook and breaking the lure. After a bit more fishing and a few more cod we drove back to the harbour to throw a few smaller fish to the resident eagles, who swooped down to snatch the fish from the surface.
Driving back over Kvaløya Island to Tromsø without a good feed of fish was a bit disappointing, but Chaz had a good meal that night. We couldn’t take any on the plane home anyway. In all we really enjoyed the experience of Norway, an unexpected find and a trip well worth it.