Standing with it’s storm tossed feet in the Barents Sea, the plateau of the North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Gazing out over that sea, the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away to the far north.
It’s a spellbinding place to visit in summer, when the midnight sun hangs in the sky for twenty four hours a day, from mid May until the end of July. Roughly a quarter of a million people make the pilgrimage to the apex of Europe in high season, with as many as five thousand visitors a day thronging those massive granite headlands.
But in winter… the same venue is largely inaccessible. The cruise ships that flock to Norway in summer have retreated to the Caribbean for winter. Temperatures have plummeted even more sharply than visitor numbers. The places where wasps and butterflies flitted in the long summer days are now deep and fast under a blanket of snow.
Frequent, regular winter snowfall makes it hard to get to the North Cape at all. Often as not, savage winter winds whip up the snow into the glacial equivalent of a desert storm, one every bit as pitiless in its momentum and intent. No, the North Cape in winter is best left for a few months.
And yet, one morning in January, I found myself in one of a convoy of three coaches, following a pair of fully tracked military vehicles, as we began the tortuous ascent to the North Cape from the town of Honningsvag. The Nordnorge had docked in the port for a few hours and, against my better judgement, I had decided to make the trek to the North Cape in winter. As a pathetic sop, I kept telling myself that this might well be my first and last chance to see this legendary land mass in the off season.
My expectations were completely wrong. Standing once more atop those brooding, snow shrouded northern cliffs, not a single breath of wind stirred around me. Behind me, fields of glistening snow rolled back to the horizon, with the eerie, surreal mid day twilight flooding it with a pale, watery sheen. Those dunes seemed as endless and empty as any desert.
But it was the North Cape itself that really grabbed the heart like a vice. The great, granite series of winding edifices plunged straight down for several hundred feet, right down to where the steel grey expanse of the Barents Sea raced to embrace it. From this height, the mental picture of icy waves crashing against implacable rock was lost. Instead, the Barents seemed to play with the rocks below like some frisky puppy dog.
Out to the horizon, the sea was as still as a millpond; a surreal expanse that reminded me of a coiled spring; one that could rebound at any moment. I have seen it in far more lively mood in the summer.
But the Barents remained implausibly calm, almost as if it were in hibernation itself. Turning round and looking back over the expanse of snow to my back, I was gifted with one of the most spectacular sights ever.
Just below the horizon, the slowly returning sun cast a blush pink, gradually reddening glow across the snow that made it resemble some kind of frozen, strawberry tinted moonscape. At the North Cape, the sun disappears entirely at the end of November, and resurfaces above the line of the horizon some two months later, at the end of January.
The intense strength and longevity of that eerie, enchanting light was proof positive that the long dormant sun was, indeed, returning to even these remote northern skies. At the time of writing, the North Cape will once again have a minimum of four hours’ daylight per day. By mid May, that daylight will be 24/7.
Inevitably, my gaze was drawn back to those stunning escarpments, standing out into the ocean. As the light changed again, pale pink sunlight softened some of the granite edges, throwing light into the shadows of deep, rolling chasms even as it softened the surface of the ocean. The combination of sheer, magnificent scale and the sense of still, magisterial peace and silence were almost overwhelming; I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the fragility of the moment. It was a moment of stunning, singular beauty that will stay with me until my dying day.
I am very conscious of the fact that we were incredibly lucky in terms of weather that day. Will I ever be that lucky again? Who knows.
But I now have an indelible picture in my head of a colossal land and seascape, seen in a totally different light, that cannot be erased. In all honesty, this one sight was worth making the entire journey for.