HURTIGRUTEN- DOG SLEDDING AT TROMSO

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Husky kennels. Tromso

This was the one tour of my Hurtigruten voyage that I was more psyched up for than any other. I had visions of whooshing silently through a landscape of pristine, virgin snow as the skis sliced a path through deep pine forests, the sky above my head packed with stars on a crisp, clear night…..

Nice imagery, but the reality was to be somewhat different.

My first sight was of a massive block of kennels, squatting amid a vast, low lying snow encampment. Three hundred and eight huskies reside at the Tromso husky encampment in all. The barking, howling and crying that filled the air everywhere reminded me of first rehearsals for the latest season of the X Factor.

Small fires flickered hungrily in the ink black fastness of late afternoon. Small, round huts speckled the vast, rolling snow plains. The scale of the entire operation was massive.

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Here we go….

The dogs themselves are wonderful, friendly and very fond of affection. Lean and wiry, their strength is nothing short of incredible. Typically, each of the two person sleds was pulled by a team of eight dogs.

Often as not, they will sleep outside at night on the kennel roof, rather than staying inside. The breed is, perhaps uniquely, attuned and adapted to the harsh realities of the frigid Norwegian winter.

Far more than yours truly, that’s for sure.

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Wagons, roll…….

Despite being wrapped up better than any Egyptian mummy, I shivered involuntarily in the -17 degree cold as we were given a safety drill, one that was somewhat padded out to facilitate the return of the sleds that had taken the first group out. But eventually it was our turn, and a mixture of excitement and trepidation took hold of me.

The sled itself is a two man affair, made entirely of wood, with standing space for the driver at the rear. The total width is roughly akin to that of an aircraft seat in economy class. Offered front seat, I shoehorned myself somewhat nervously into pole position, pun wholly intentional.

An increasingly welcome blanket covered my lower body; the advice from our calmly competent driver to ‘keep my hands well inside’ was happily complied with.

‘Mush!’

And we are off. Our eight strong team of straining huskies limbers slowly into gear. The sled lurches and bumps forward lethargically at first, feeling oddly heavy and ponderous. Perhaps it was the weight of three fully grown humans, who knows?

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Quite the adventure….

We gather speed by turns and canter through a meandering, mesmeric hinterland of rolling snow dunes and sparse, stripped tree branches. The sled bumps, heels and slews along an obviously well ploughed track as we roll left and right like a destroyer caught in a Force Ten storm.. The odd abrupt command from our guide elicits an instant response from the dog team but, to my mind, they seem to have the whole thing under control by themselves.

This is no sedate, dreamy sojourn with sleigh bells ringing and tinkling in unison. This is a shuddering, rocking and rolling, adrenaline fuelled joy ride that twists, turns and, at turns almost flies along and through a winding sea of snow that both dogs and driver know by heart. Any feelings of cold have long since gone.

In the ink black Tromso sky, a ghostly ribbon of spectral green bands  briefly flit across the ether, winding and unwinding like some sinuously coiled snake. It ends as quickly as it begins, as the Northern Lights, after that brief, electrifying debut, are swallowed by a rolling mass of dense, low cloud.

We shudder, thump and lurch at a stately clip across this expanse of scrub studded snow, my breath coming in short gasps. For what seems like an eternity, this eight engine fairground ride whooshes and whirls through this frigid, pristine wasteland until finally- and, by now thankfully- we slew to a halt near one of those round tents at the heart of the encampment.

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Coffee and warmth!

Inside, a central, wood fuelled fire crackles and splutters a reassuring welcome as hot coffee and chocolate cake combine to bring me slowly, gratefully, back to earth. That fire is almost bewitching. Outside, the dogs bay, howl and paw the ground impatiently as the next part of their human cargo is loaded up. More coffee? Don’t mind if I do.

Sledding at night, in the depths of a Norwegian winter, is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. If you are only ever going to Norway once- especially in winter- then doing it is a no brainer. But if you have mobility problems or are nervous in any way, I would definitely seek advice first.

It was an exhilarating adrenaline surge from first to last, a thrilling fairground ride set amid one of the most spectacular natural tableaux on the planet. Heading back to the Nordnorge that night, I found myself still grinning like an idiot from ear to ear.

In the interests of clarity….

The three middle pictures of Husky teams on the move are actually screen grabs from the on board Hurtigruten promotional DVD. We simply couldn’t have got out of the sleds to get such shots. Thus, they remain the copyright of Hurtigruten.

 

 

NIGHTMARE OFF NORTH CAPE

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Bridge and superstructure of the Scharnhorst, as seen on the model on display in the North Cape visitor’s centre

The North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Looking out from it’s lofty, slowly rolling plateau across the Barents Sea, it is difficult to imagine that the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away.

It is even more difficult to imagine that the waters to the north of this quiet, spectacular spot played host to the last major battle between British and German capital ships.

Just ninety miles north of the North Cape, a battleship lies entombed in around a thousand feet of freezing Arctic water.

Her name is Scharnhorst.

By December 1943, Germany’s war against Russia had turned irrevocably for the worst. As the Red Army’s advance assumed momentum, massive British and American convoys deposited thousands of tanks, guns, trucks and planes into the Russian war effort each month, unloading their cargoes at the year round ice free port of Murmansk.

By this stage, every single convoy was like a nail in the coffin of the Third Reich. And it led the Germans to try a desperate remedy to stop this torrent of supplies.

Sitting like a spider in her web at Alta Fjord, just two hundred miles from the route that any convoy would have to take, was the battleship Scharnhorst, the last serviceable capital ship that Germany had in Norwegian waters.

Scharnhorst had a long standing reputation as the ‘lucky ship’ of Hitler’s navy. In four years of combat she had been damaged by mines, bombs, and heavy shells, but she had always emerged to fight on. Her veteran crew believed in their ship absolutely.

If ‘lucky’ Scharnhorst could once get in among the slow moving ships of a heavily laden Arctic convoy, her heavy guns could do more damage in two hours than the entire U boat fleet had managed in the previous six months. The boost to the morale of the hard pressed German army would be incalculable.

But by now, any sortie was a massive gamble.

The Royal Navy had complete numerical superiority in these waters, and British radar was now way ahead in capability of anything the Germans had.

But the German situation was desperate and, besides, wasn’t Scharnhorst a ‘lucky’ ship?

Accordingly, on Christmas Day 1943, Scharnhorst came looming out of Alta, intent on savaging a recently reported supply convoy, JW 55B.

Warned of her sailing by intercepted German messages the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Bruce Fraser, was waiting for her. If Fraser could finally put an end to Scharnhorst, he would end the last real surface threat to the Arctic convoys.

To the south of the convoy, a squadron of three British cruisers-Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield-formed a shield to protect the merchant ships from the German battleship. Though far less powerful than the German ship, this squadron was robust enough to buy at least enough time for the convoy to escape the scene.

Out at sea, Fraser himself was in the powerful, modern battleship Duke Of York. With him was another cruiser- HMS Jamaica- and four destroyers, These ships were intended to form the other half of a giant pincer that would hopefully encircle Scharnhorst and then pound her into scrap.

It was a very astute plan. The Duke Of York was a more powerful beast than the Scharnhorst, and her guns could certainly do the job. But the Scharnhorst was faster, and would first need to be slowed down by smaller ships. The outcome was by no means certain.

What was certain on the morning of December 26th, 1943, was that both sides found a common enemy in the form of a full strength Arctic gale. Almost complete darkness shrouded a screaming howler of a storm, with huge, rolling waves that made even Duke Of York and Scharnhorst pitch and sway horribly. The weather that day favoured no man.

At around 0830 that morning, the radar plot on one of the three British cruisers shielding the convoy from the south picked up a very large warship, approaching rapidly from the direction of Norway.

It could only be the Scharnhorst. The three cruisers went immediately to action stations.

An hour later the German battleship was illuminated with star shell, fired from the cruisers. Taken completely by surprise, the Scharnhorst was lit up as starkly as a Christmas tree. On both sides, the guns barked and roared into life.

One of the first British shells smashed into the forward radar set of the Scharnhorst, rendering her completely blind forward. The damaged battleship broke off the action, using her superior speed to escape. Unable to keep up with her in the gale, the three cruisers closed back up to protect the convoy, in case the raider tried to come at the merchant ships again from another direction.

She did. And it was the ending of her.

If Scharnhorst had ran for home right then, Fraser could never have caught up with her in time. But aboard the German battleship, Rear Admiral Erich Bey decided to try and use his speed to outrun the cruisers and come in from another direction. His guns were all intact and, by the time he came back at the convoy, he could wreak havoc in the Arctic twilight that would break at around that time of day.

To Bey’s immense chagrin, the same three cruisers, forewarned by radar, were waiting for him. Again, the guns roared out on both sides.

This time, it was Scharnhorst that got the better result. One of her shells put one of the main turrets on Norfolk out of action, causing several casualties. At the same time, Sheffield was suffering some engine trouble. It could have been very bad.

But Bey had had enough by this stage. He realised that he was fighting blind, in a damaged ship, against opponents that could predict his every move. Soon after the guns ceased firing for the second time, he turned Scharnhorst on a course back for Norway. The three cruisers, joined by four destroyers from the convoy escort, shadowed him at a distance, all the while relaying the course and speed of Scharnhorst to Fraser in the approaching Duke Of York.

Not long after four in the afternoon, the Scharnhorst was once again caught by surprise, as star shells from Fraser’s ships illuminated her from bow to stern. The guns on the British battleship crashed out, hitting the German at once and knocking out one of her two forward main gun turrets. It was remarkable shooting by any standards. With the original shadowers now also entering the fray, some twelve British and one Norwegian warship were now converging on Bey’s flagship.

But Scharnhorst was not done yet.

Recovering quickly from her surprise, the German battleship began zig zagging frantically as she worked up to her top speed. Her guns shot through both of the masts on the Duke Of York –another first class gunnery display-and she gradually began to open the range. Incredibly, it began to look as if the Scharnhorst would escape once more.

Then, at the extreme limit of her firing range, a lucky hit from Duke Of York crashed right through into the stern of the fleeing Scharnhorst. It resulted in a catastrophic loss of speed in the German ship and, although incredible efforts by her engineers got her back up to 22 knots, it was not enough to outrun the four destroyers that were now overhauling her, two to either side.

In seas that made them heel, pitch and lurch almost unimaginably, the four destroyers, with their paper thin armour, swerved through a hail of desperate shell fire from the Scharnhorst. A string of torpedo strikes lanced her hull on both sides, and Scharnhorst staggered to a crawl like a slowly dying bull. Now, both Fraser and the cruisers overhauled the battleship, forming a cordon from which there was no escape this time.

Aboard Scharnhorst, Bey knew it, too. He signalled Berlin; ‘The Scharnhorst will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer’. There could be no doubt now about the outcome.

For the next hour, a hurricane of shell fire and another salvo of torpedoes from all the surrounding ships gradually demolished the proud Scharnhorst. The German battleship fought doggedly, but hopelessly; ‘like a wounded shark’, in the words of one Royal Navy observer.

No one saw her finally go under in the icy, storm tossed darkness, but it is generally agreed that she finally gave up the ghost at around 1945, after a heavy underwater explosion was heard and felt in all the British ships. Scharnhorst capsized and sank; the uncontrollable fires raging aboard her finally smothered by the freezing Arctic waters. Of her complement of just over 1900 officers and men, only thirty-six were able to be saved from the savage, wind swept seas.

When the wreck of Scharnhorst was eventually discovered in September, 2000 by a joint British and Norwegian team,  subsequent survey footage confirmed that the bows had been blown off, suggesting that the remaining ammunition in her forward turrets did, indeed, explode as she sank. In all, the Scharnhorst absorbed something like fifty five heavy shell hits and some eleven torpedoes before she finally sank.

The Battle of North Cape marked the last occasion on which giant battleships would slug it out at sea, without airborne interference, in a real life fight to the death. As such, it has achieved a seminal place in the history of both the British and German navies to this day.

 

 

HURTIGRUTEN- LANDFALL AT ALESUND

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Olde worlde Alesund

The first morning of the voyage found the Nordnorge pitching and rolling quite a bit as she pushed purposefully northward from Bergen. I was more surprised by this than I should have been.

Most of our voyage would consist of sailing in confined, sheltered waters, venturing sometimes sixty or seventy miles into the heart of the fjords themselves. And, indeed, most of the time we would hardly be aware of the effect of those winter time Arctic waters on our sturdy little ship.

But on this particular morning, we had to cross a patch of open sea. Designed with a shallow draft that allows her to navigate in even the most shallow confines, the Nordnorge rocked, rolled and pitched around on the open sea for around an hour or so, wrong footing many people on that topsy- turvy morning.

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Alesund is an Art Nouveau masterpiece

In winter time Norway, any amount of daylight is at a premium. From around nine in the morning, a kind of opaque, pearly light hung over the white flecked, steel grey rollers as we held to our course. The odd snowstorm lashed the decks like some kind of vengeful wraith.

Snuggled down in a chair in the gently rolling vista of the observation lounge, I watched in sheer, open jawed amazement as a series of smooth, snow draped, low rolling hills breasted the horizon, looking for all the world like so many slain sea monsters that had been left where they had fallen. The whole scene had a kind of stark, petrified stillness and beauty about it. The silence was even sharper and more defined than the cold.

Gradually, something resembling civilisation began to take shape about noon. The Nordnorge slowed to a crawl as she was embraced by a horseshoe shaped crescent of dark, undulating hills, bathed in the rosy pink glow of a sun that lay not far below the horizon. Ashore, car headlights glistened in the surreal twilight like so many maddened glow worms, beetling along the water front. Houses and waterfront buildings took form, then became more sharply defined as the Nordnorge ghosted past a surly looking Russian trawler that had seen many a better day. We were alongside before I even knew it.

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Russian trawler, Alesund

Ah, Alesund. I knew it well from the sultry summer days, when an almost endless daylight smiled down on the cafes along the beautiful harbour, and fleets of yachts bobbed at anchor like gaggles of contented swans. The streets were full of people, wandering the town from bars to restaurants, clubs, and back again. But now….

The beautiful city seemed to be in hibernation, dusted by a carpet of fresh snow that ran from the hills right down to the harbour itself. Silence filled the void between the streets lined with the glut of still beautiful Art Nouveau buildings that have always been the hallmark of the city.

After a disastrous fire at the turn of the twentieth century, Alesund was almost completely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style that was then in vogue. Today, these beautiful buildings, with their rounded contours, gently tapering spires and pretty, pastel colours, have been largely reconfigured as cafes, restaurants and trendy bars. Mercifully, they are a very short walk from where the Hurtigruten ferries dock, right in the city centre.

The snow under my feet was crisp, compact and firm as I headed uphill to try and get the best shots of some of these buildings. The best of the twilight was just beginning to glint off those gorgeous facades at around that time. With a row of low, ranging mountains and an eerily shimmering fjord as a backdrop, they were an electrifying, exhilarating sight.

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Winter waterfront, Alesund

I pottered back down those steep hills somewhat more gingerly to find myself crossing the bridge to the waterfront. Outside tables that would have normally been thronged with light hearted and laughing people in summer, sat stark and deserted under a funeral shroud of snow that glittered like frosting on a wedding cake. Few people were about at this early afternoon hour. Every now and again a car or a bus would splutter past as if it were running for it’s very life. Then the silence would return.

Alesund that day was a mix of intoxicating fresh air and delicate, slowly fading light that framed one of the most beautiful city scapes anywhere. But, even under that freezing facade of snow, you could sense that it would not be too much longer before the light returns for months on end, and this Sleeping Beauty would bloom like fresh spring flowers.

Back aboard the Nordnorge, I watched the spindly fingers of darkness stealing across Alesund like some stealthy thief as it snuffed out the lights of the town. Under my feet, the engines throbbed gently as the gap between ship and quay became a yawning, charcoal coloured chasm.

With that, we stood out into the darkness, towards the fastness of Arctic Norway, beckoning from the north.

HURTIGRUTEN- GO NORTH, YOUNG MAN!

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The Nordnorge docked at Trondheim

Hurtigruten is the real way to see the real Norway, up close and personal. It’s a voyage rather than a cruise, one that calls at no less than thirty four different ports on the seven night, six day run from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes, just ten kilometres from the Russian border.

Many of those stops last around some fifteen minutes; long enough for a few people to embark and disembark, and for a few pallets of essential sundries and luxury goods to be shuttled on and off. One of my abiding memories is hearing the unmistakable sound of a fork lift truck, rumbling in and out of the side loading doors, at four o’clock in the morning.

Other stops, at banner ports such as Alesund, Trondheim, Bodo, Tromso and Honningsvag, are more extensive. Often of several hours’ duration, these allow the opportunity to go on walking tours, or even dog sledding safaris (more on than particular one to come). And, to crown it all, there is a truly unique, once in a lifetime chance to visit the mighty North Cape itself at the height of winter.

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Five Deck outdoor wraparound promenade

If you need all the bells and whistles of a conventional cruise ship, then perhaps best to look elsewhere. There is no on board entertainment as such, no army of stewards ready to cater to your every whim. The Hurtigruten are strictly working ships, albeit very comfortable ones. Their primary business is carrying food, supplies and foot passengers to the string of isolated ports and hamlets that sprinkle the deep, winding coastline of Norway, right up to the North Cape and beyond. Sightseers are most certainly not the priority.

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Restaurant view from starboard to port

Nor, however, are they neglected. Breakfast and lunch is served buffet style, with outstanding local produce such as seafood, cold cuts, and several hot dishes on offer. Dinner is a set, three course meal- again, local fare- that revolves around Norwegian staples of soups, meat and fish, followed by a superb, calorie laden dessert guaranteed to make your arteries beg for mercy.

Do not expect the level of deft, attentive service that you get on a cruise ship. There are simply not enough staff on board to deliver it on a ferry. But service is obliging, polite and genuine, offered up by an all Norwegian staff that, often as not, double up in more than one job.

Cabins, too, are quite small, but more than adequate. Beds come with a duvet that you uncover yourself each night. There is no room service, although maids do come in every day to clean the room and replenish bath towels, etc. Wardrobe space is minimal, but then you won’t be needing the ballgowns or tuxedos on this sizzling, winter time adventure.

I was on the trim, sturdy MS Nordorge, twelve thousand tons of immaculate, beautifully styled intent that the aptly named Captain Winther handled like a nippy little town car, spinning round on a dime to come alongside some of the most improbably located quaysides I have ever seen. For a week, we threaded nimbly between towering rock formations and around sharp, deeply indented headlands. The standard of seamanship on display was as finely crafted as any ballet performance.

Seven decks high, the Nordnorge boasts mostly small, mainly outside cabins on deck three, and again on decks five and six. Deck four is given over to a series of public rooms that run fore to aft.

Forward here are a pair of flanking conference rooms and a library, followed by the small Stella Polaris bar that has floor to ceiling windows on both sides. A cafe follows, open more or less 24/7 for the sale of hot and cold drinks, snacks, and sundries.

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The viewing gallery on Four Deck

On the starboard side, a viewing gallery with floor to ceiling windows ran all the way aft to the main dining room. Lined with extremely comfortable chairs along its entire stance, this was an incredibly popular venue for readers and sightseers alike, especially just before dinner.

The dining room itself overlooks the stern, with windows allowing views both to port and starboard, and out across the wake.

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Stella Polaris bar

Up on deck seven, a vast, forward facing, horseshoe shaped observation lounge allows for fabulous vistas through walls of floor to ceiling glass. Thronged by comfortable sofas and easy chairs that were a definite hazard to activity of any kind, it was by far the most popular room on the ship when she was under way.

This leads into a central, midships bar with more prime viewing space, both to port and starboard. Aft of this, the open Arctic beckons.

The aft part of deck seven is open to the stern. Port and starboard sides have perspex screens for about half the length. Sprinkled with wooden tables and chairs, these have overhead heaters, suspended from a perspex roof, that makes them usable at any hour of the day or night. The starboard side is for the use of smokers.

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Seven deck aft terrace, from port side

Behind this, an open terrace deck is covered in green matting. The snow that falls so often is usually shovelled off into the aft recesses of the deck, but care needs to be exercised when walking here at any time in the winter season. The same is true of the outdoor promenade deck that wraps all the way around deck five. This was often iced over but, in truth, it is all but impossible to keep clear 24/7 in those Arctic climes.

This then, was the Nordnorge. All of these seven decks were pierced by a pair of staircases, one each fore and aft, each with a single elevator. Their lobbies boasted beautiful, polished wood floors and brass trimmed stairwells down their entire length.

Everywhere, a deliberate maritime theme runs right through the ship, with evocative paintings of former Hurtigruten ships, and scenes from local Norwegian life of yore. There are one or two old models, and no shortage of perfectly polished brass. Lots of mirrored surfaces, and  the wide use of glass gave the illusion that the Nordnorge appeared larger than was actually the case.

Around ten thirty on a glacial late January night, the Nordorge shuddered gently into life and warped slowly away from the Hurtigruten quay in Bergen, standing out into a blinding snowstorm that all but obliterated any view from my seat in the observation lounge. I just managed to make out the contours of the great suspension bridge as we ghosted under it. Ashore, clusters of light seemed to huddle together, as if seeking refuge from the howling banshee rousing in fury all around it.

We were off….

 

HURTIGRUTEN- SAILING INTO A WINTER WONDERLAND

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Sailing north in winter time Norway

The far north of Norway in winter. Vast, snow shrouded mountains soar skywards like ancient monoliths, clawing at an eerie, pearly white glow in the sky that hangs just above the horizon as your ship surges through a gunmetal swell. The cold air is as sharp as a knife.

As your ship rounds another headland, a cluster of little houses cling to a hillside, as if seeking refuge from the encroaching blanket of snow that lays siege to it. In the centre, a Norwegian flag hangs, limp in the still, early afternoon air.

Sailing on, and a sudden blizzard throws itself across your path; a roiling, blinding white mass that is every bit as irresistible as any desert sandstorm. It clears just as quickly to reveal the land again; a carpet of petrified pine forests and fir trees, groaning under the weight of the snow that presses down on them. They stand, gaunt and skeletal, on the edges of ravines that plunge right down into the waters of the fjord itself.

Inside the Hurtigruten ship, all is warm and welcoming. Floor to ceiling windows allow passengers to absorb the fantastic scenic smorgasbord unfolding all around them in comfort. Some sit picking at waffles with fresh cream from the cafe; others are more than grateful for the piping hot coffee.

A strange sense of peace pervades your passage into these surreal northern wastes. It truly is a voyage like no other.

Over the next series of blogs, we’ll take you into this special, spectacularly isolated landscape. Welcome to the wonders of winter time Norway…..