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Alta and Finnmark: Northern Lights!

♪♫♪ And there was dancing for my birthday, dancing in the sky ♪♫♪

semi-overcast -13 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We both slept really well last night – the beds may be narrow, but those mattress covers on top makes them super-comfortable! That is, until 01:45 this morning when we were woken by a mouse! Yes, a mouse. He (or she) was in the rafters, gnawing away at the wood and the noise reverberated throughout the whole little cabin. After much banging on the walls, it finally scampered off and we were able to go back to sleep.

The original plan was to drive up to North Cape today, but after mulling it over we decided that it would be too much driving in one day. As the last part of the journey there involves driving in a convoy, it would mean (at least) a 13 hour day); which wouldn't be too bad if we didn't want to go aurora hunting this evening. Plus we have to drive back to Tromsø tomorrow.

Alta

So we decide to stick to some local sightseeing instead today, starting with the city of Alta.

Northern Lights Cathedral
Designed by architects Schmidt Hammer Larsen to apparently look like cascading waves of the northern lights, Alta's modern cathedral was consecrated in 2013.

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Sunrise

There's a beautiful sunrise today, so we spend the morning driving along the coast trying to capture it on camera.

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The sunrise goes from being pale and interesting to bold and dramatic! The whole sky appears on fire with huge swathes of glowing orange above the mountains.

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Reflecting in the broken ice on the Alta fjord, the sunrise is nothing short of sensational!

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Continuing on a small side road on one of the 'fingers' of the fjord, I make David stop every few hundred yards for a different view.

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Well, it is my birthday, so he has to be nice to me. Just for one day it won't hurt him, although he is finding it quite difficult! In reality of course, David is nice to me every day, and any comments are just gentle ribbing.

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David stays in the car, checking out the weather forecast for this evening while I run around with my camera outside in the freezing cold.

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The spectacular sunrise fades into a more 'pale and interesting' sunset.

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We are surprised at how little snow there is here compared with Tromsø. We are not disappointed that it is not snowing though. We want clear skies for later!

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At the end of the track at Russeluft we decide to head back to camp for an early finish today – the forecast is looking good for the aurora later, so it could be a long night.

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Post Boxes

Unlike England, where mail is delivered right through a slit in your door; in Norway often all the post boxes for a whole street are situated in a common and convenient place. Our road at home had ten houses, and everyone's letters were delivered to the collection of post boxes in the central part of the street.

Parcels usually have to be collected at the post office. It makes me very grateful for the UK postal service where the postman (or woman) will carry parcels right to your door and knock to ensure safe delivery.

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Shopping

Looking for somewhere to stock up on some food, we find everywhere closed as it is a Sunday. Eventually we end up in the petrol station where I get a few treats as well as tonight's dinner.

Troika
One of my childhood favourites, this chocolate is filled with three layers: jelly, truffle and marzipan. Interestingly enough, I don't like marzipan on its own, but love this bar!

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Finnmarksvidda

A bleak and unforgiving mountain plateau (Norway's largest), the temperatures can reach -50 °C on Finnmarksvidda in winter.

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So this is what it looks like where we were in the dark last night!

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Birthday Celebrations

Not since we were in the dry country of Sudan in 2004, have I had a birthday celebration without alcohol. Because of the strict drink-driving laws in Norway (0.02%), we decided we were better off not having any at all. And as we as are going out searching for those northern lights after dinner every evening there doesn't seem to be any point - or time - to imbibe.

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Villa Farris
So here I am with my non-alcoholic bubbles for the special day. Villa Farris used to be called 'fruksjampagne' (fruit champagne) when I was young, but had to remove the word 'champagne' for copyright reasons. I always enjoyed it as a treat when little, and it is still as good as I remember – a fruit flavoured carbonated drink.

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Pyttipanne
Swedish in origin (I believe), pyttipanne is a hash, usually made of leftovers. I add the sausages we didn't eat the other day to a mixture of onions and potatoes. And very nice it is too.

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It's GO for later according to the norway-lights website, so we take an afternoon siesta to prepare us for a long - and late - night. Not sure I will be able to sleep for the excitement though...

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After a delightful nap I have some much appreciated chill-time chatting to friends on Facebook and replying to numerous birthday greetings.

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Dinner
'Spekeskinke med eggerøre' – cured ham with scrambled eggs - has always been one of my dad's favourite dinners, and we used to buy a whole leg of ham every spring which would last us all summer. I am taken aback by the whiteness of the eggs - I am sure we once had a choice of white or brown eggs in the UK too! Now I only ever see brown eggs in the stores - I wonder why?

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Aurora Hunt

As soon as we have eaten, we set off into the wilderness again. Same place, same time, and soon the same car from last night join us too.

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So we sit and wait. And wait. And wait. I get out of the car to take a few test shots... and discover that in my excitement at the prospect of northern lights this evening, I forgot to put my jeans on. I do have two layers of thermal long-johns, but no trousers. Oh well, the underwear is black, it is dark, and we'll never see the other people again, so who cares.

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So we wait some more. We sing all the verses of 'ten green bottles'. We play 'I spy'. We reminisce about holidays past. An then we wait some more.

After about an hour and a half, I go outside to fiddle with my tripod. What is that in the sky? A thin green stripe? Excitedly I yell “aurora” at David and rush to take a few photos.

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It's not spectacular, but it is most definitely the northern lights. It is a fairly thin line which doesn't do much, but I have created this short time lapse video to show the little bit of movement we do get.


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While we are busy watching the green display in the sky, the dog team from Gargia Lodge come back from their evening exercises. We saw them go past earlier, with the dogs all tied together at the front, but instead of a sled, they are pulling a quad bike.

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OK, so they are not actually pulling the ATV, it is presumably there to emulate a sled for the dogs to have a purpose for their running. These are racing dogs, so need to be kept in tip top condition ready for the season.

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Ten minutes later and the light display is all over, so we get back in the car to warm up and wait some more. Twenty minutes go by before the lights make another appearance, this time they start fairly weak, get brighter and longer; and eventually the arc covers the entire horizon!

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The display goes on for 45 minutes this time, so I have the opportunity to play around with different foregrounds... such as David, or the car. Not much else available around here.

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With a three quarter moon, the foreground is lit up surprisingly well; in fact, I have never seen a moon shadow so pronounced before!

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Not before the last of the arc fizzles out do we go back inside the car and pour ourself a much deserved coffee! Two very happy campers, although David is disappointed that his video camera refused to play! I have therefore played around with another time lapse video from some of my shots.

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We don't even have time to drink the coffee before I yet again spot something in the sky. The people in the other car don't seem to be taking pictures, and I haven't seen them get out of the car yet. I wouldn't have thought they can see much outside with their headlights on.

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Feeling extremely happy to be witnessing this, I can't believe it when the lights suddenly increase in luminance, and start to dance across the sky, creating swathes of electric colour across the whole of the horizon from the south east to the north west. What an amazing display.

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As has been said many times, photos cannot do justice to the dancing lights, so here is another time lapse...

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Ecstasy sets in and I find it hard to control myself. The expressions “Oh my gawd”, “wow”, and “this is amazing” are somewhat overused this evening. The display is too big to fit it all in despite a 16mm lens, and I don't know which way to face my camera.

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I lock my main Canon EOS 5D III on continuous shooting and leave it to do its own thing while I set up the spare camera (a Canon EOS 6D) on another tripod facing the opposite direction. Because this camera is not fitted with such a fast lens, I don't find it as successful, and of course I only have one remote control so it is a bit fiddly with the 6D using self timer for each shot.

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All good things have to come to an end, and by ten o'clock there are no more green lights in the sky. We hang around for another couple of hours or more, with no further activity, before we call it a day.

Still on a high from this evening's display, I try to capture the glittering bits of ice on the side of the road, grasses and trees, sparkling in the car headlight beam. Truly an enchanted end to a magical day!

Posted by Grete Howard 05:15 Archived in Norway Tagged winter scenery sunrise holiday cathedral norway aurora northern_lights finnmark norge alta aurora_borealis gargia gargia_fjellsture altafjorden altafjord canon_eos_5d_iii Comments (2)

Lyngen - Alta - Gargia

Sunrise, sunset and moonrise. All within a three hour period. Followed - much later - by the northern lights. Sort of.

semi-overcast -15 °C
View Inside the Arctic Circle Tromsø & Alta 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It's still snowing when we go out this morning, but thankfully it doesn't look like it has been snowing heavily all night, as the new snowfall isn't that deep. Deep enough, though.

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The light is mysterious and magical as we make our way towards the mainland and the main E6 highway to the north today.

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As we wait for the ferry, we make another attempt at phoning the SixT car hire place to ask about the tyre pressure warning light that came on yesterday. This time we make sure that the + sign is at the front of the number, not at the end; and thankfully we now reach the right people. They confirm our conclusion, that it is nothing to worry about and it's perfectly safe to continue driving. Good.

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Seeing this guy with his snow-blower, brings back memories of the fun parts of clearing the snow back home.

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Even if we don't see northern lights or experience anything else on this trip, it has been worth coming to Norway just for today's drive along the coast from Lyngen to Alta. The scenery is magnificent, and although it has been said many times that pictures cannot do these things justice, here are a few photos to show some of the vistas we see:

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Whenever David can, he stops for me to get out and take photos. Most of the time, however, it is just the usual 'drive-by-shooting', as these roads are quite narrow and winding, with very few places to stop, or even pass any slow-moving vehicles.

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Is that blue sky I see? This bodes well for our northern lights safari tonight!

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Although it is -4 °C now, because there is no wind it doesn't feel that cold when I nip out of the car without a jacket to take some shots. I don't linger though...

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Although to the untrained eye (ours), the road doesn't appear to need clearing, we see a number of snowploughs on the journey. The local authorities seem to be very much on top of the winter maintenance in these parts.

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In a huge lay-by we stop to have a car picnic overlooking the mountains and the sunset. Up here there is a bitingly cold wind making the 'real feel' very much lower than the actual temperature of -6 °C.

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Today there is absolutely no fear of me falling asleep, as the scenery and sunrise/sunset are absolutely breathtaking! The main E6 hugs the coastline, weaving in and out of the fingers of fjords, inlets and islands, with bridges and tunnels. Although the Arctic winter light is captivating, we so want to come back in summer to do this journey during never-ending daylight!

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Unlike the UK where it is often over in a few minutes, the sunrise and sunset seem to go on forever here in the north. For 2.5 hours we have a bewitching sunrise merging seamlessly into an equally delightful sunset, painting the sky and mountain peaks in hues of pink, orange and purple.

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All too soon daylight fades over this beautiful coastline yet again.

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Suddenly we spot the most incredible moon rising over the mountain on the horizon. With nowhere to pull over, I snap away feverishly through the window of the moving car – this has to be the most extraordinary moonrise I have ever seen! Words cannot describe it, and pictures do not do this magnificent, spine-tingling moment justice.

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A mere ten minutes go by before we can find somewhere to stop – in the small village of Talvik – so that I can put my tripod up to photograph the moon properly. In that time it has already risen considerably higher on the horizon and is no longer quite so dramatic.

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Gargia Fjellstue

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From Alta we are turning inland to get to our accommodation for the night – Gargia Fjellstue, and by the time we get there it is completely dark. So are the lodgings. No lights on inside the main building, nor any of the cabins. We try the door. Locked. We ring the telephone number we were given in the booking. Voice-mail. What do we do now? At -15 °C it is too cold to stand around outside, so we get back in the car and ponder our next move.

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After about ten minutes or so, a young girl appears, walks past the car and around the back of the reception/restaurant. Lights are turned on, and the front door unlocked.

As we are checking in, David comments that she speaks very good English – turns out she is in fact English, from Oxford! Mathild, as we learn her name is, tells us everyone thinks she is a Norwegian who speaks good English. “Just like me, then” I quip, but it isn't until I reply to her in Norwegian that she realises I am serious!

The lodge keeps a number of dogs for sled racing purposes, and Mathild hands me the most adorable three week old puppy! Apparently the young mother ate all the other puppies so this one is being hand raised. The puppy is gorgeous and nestles up against my neck, grunting in a very similar way to the baby wild pig I snuggled up to in an almost identical fashion a few weeks ago in Kenya.

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The dog yard

We settle in to our comfortable little 'hytte' – a small wood cabin with grass on the roof – although the air inside is fairly cool when we arrive.

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The cabin may be small, but it is very welcoming and cosy. The main room features the dining area, sitting area and kitchenette.

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A bathroom off to one side, as well as a bedroom.

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One feature I notice, which is typical Norwegian, is the pull-out bread board in place of a top drawer in the kitchen.

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Dinner
As soon as we've settled in, I start to make dinner. Having turned on the hot plates, I can't believe how long they take to heat up. Being used to induction cooking at home, the classic electric cooking rings seem so old-fashioned and slow. I wait, and wait and wait for the butter to even start melting. I bought a couple of whale steaks in the supermarket yesterday; one of my many nostalgic foods for this trip. Whale was almost as common as beef for Sunday dinners back home.

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I know it is a very controversial subject, and I don't want to get into a discussion about the ethics of whale hunting. I would just like to point out that the minke whale available for food in Norway is not an endangered species; unlike cod - the most popular variety used for the English fish and chips.

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Whale is nothing like fish or seafood in appearance, texture or taste. It is more akin to a very lean steak.

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Whale steaks served with mushrooms and potatoes in a creamy sauce.

Sugar Tongs

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These very commonly used tongs in the sugar bowl remind me of a rather old Norwegian joke: “The farmer was well known for popping behind the cow shed for a quick pee, even while having visitors; and his wife was fed up – and embarrassed – that once back inside, he didn't wash his hands, and would grab a couple of sugar cubes using his fingers. One of their friends suggested the solution was to get some tongs.

A week later the same friend was yet again having coffee and cakes with the farmer and his wife, when she noticed the farmer disappeared outside, came back in again, and as before, used his hands to help himself to sugar.

“Did you not get any tongs” she asked the farmer's wife. “Oh, yes, I did” she replied “and I hung them behind the cow shed...”

Aurora Hunting

Gargia Fjellsture has free wifi in the cabins, and the signal is strong enough that we can check out the various weather and aurora forecasts for this evening. It is not looking too brilliant, but we decide to go off in search of the lights anyway.

This is one of our favourite sites for aurora forecasts.

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Mathild recommends we carry on up the track past the cabins, for four kilometres, to a high plateau where there is a large area suitable for parking.

We find the spot without any trouble, and from here we can see in every single direction, without much light pollution. I set up my tripod and take a few test shots to determine which settings are best for the conditions. There is quite a glow from the bright lights of Alta, and the presence of the moon means it is not pitch dark outside, which makes it easier to navigate around.

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After a short while we are joined by another car and we sit there and wait and wait. Then we see something... It may be a cloud, but as the camera can pick up way more colour than the naked eye can, I take a few test shots.

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Yes, it is definitely a green hue in the sky, but it is very weak and mostly hiding behind the clouds.

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For the next three hours, we sit, wait, drink coffee, pop out to look at the sky, see a cloud, get back in the car, drink some more coffee, stand outside wishing the clouds to go away....

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Finally we admit defeat and make our way back to the cabin. The rooms have heated up while we were out so I don't have to go to bed with all my clothes on after all.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:13 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes mountains sky snow winter sunset coast travel roads scenery sunrise clouds holiday fun beautiful moon norway ferry moonrise wind cold aurora northern_lights night_time stunning alta car_hire road-trip aurora_borealis snowing biltrend nord_norge e6 norwegian_coast night_photography gargia gargia_fjellstue snow_plough snow_plow ploughing moon_rise talvik self_catering sugar_tongs Comments (1)

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