MY FINAL MORNING in Tromsø, and I am up early. A couple of days away from Oslo and I have lost the head that comes from spending too much time in big cities. My short stay in this friendly island town has been most enjoyable. There’s something special about being so far north in the world. You don’t know until you’ve done it, sort of special. The summers are unexpectedly summery. The sun has shone for most of the time I have been here, both day and night, which makes it an extremely equable place to be. I’ll probably call back on my way back to the Lofoten Islands, where I plan to stay for a while to complete the first draft of Pedersen’s Last Dream. Not to forget the rewrite of At the End of Tobago Street for Franc Roddam I keep on trying to forget.
After hanging about too long – in my anxiety not to miss it – at last I am on a bus going in the direction of Hammerfest. It’s getting so close now I’m starting to feel a little uneasy about contacting the Plantings. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any contact for decades. My grandparents were divorced some time in the 1920s. I know virtually know nothing about grandfather’s side of the family, I’m not even sure of any of their first names. Just his. Remi Anton. Or was it Anton Remi?
There isn’t a bus that goes directly to Hammerfest, so my journey first takes me along the winding road to Alta, chief town of Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway, which borders Russia and Finland. The road follows the fjord for much of the way.
This far north of the Arctic Circle is sparsely inhabited and there’s not much traffic. Drivers take it easy; there’s no sense of pointless rushing about. The bus brakes gently to let a bossy duck strut across the road. The driver allows the duck to take its time. No beeping or tooting to hurry it along. Ducks obviously have right of way in this part of the world, and it starts seeming the way things should be everywhere.
There are two fjords the bus has to cross by ferry. The first ferry ride takes twenty minutes. The weather changed from warm and sunny to chilly and cloudy in less than half an hour. I stood alone on the upper deck breathing the damp, cold air in awe of the beautiful harshness of nature in one of the few places left in Europe where man cannot realistically compete. Grey, brooding and misty, the still waters of the fjord fold aside as the ferry ploughs its way across. Everywhere, streams gush down sheer mountainsides as the remaining winter snows melt to fill the fjord. The very few houses and cabins visible are completely dwarfed by the magnificent scenery.
The only place where more than one or two cars can be seen together is by the quayside queueing for the ferries. At the second quay in the tiny fjordside village of Lyngseidet, I am amazed to see a huge fibre-glass Santa Claus over 25 feet high. It was erected to win this small place the title of having the biggest Santa Claus in the world. It managed to hang on to the title for a few years before another Norwegian village erected an even bigger one. But it is best known for being selected as having the ugliest tourist attraction in the entire nation in 1997 by a Norwegian newspaper. It certainly deserves the honour. It is horrific. I take back what I said about being one of the few places left in Europe where man cannot realistically compete with nature. The photo cannot do enough justice to the ugliness of the figure, though I have a sneaking feeling most small children must love it. They call it Gollis. A phonetically fitting name, somehow.
The bus trundles aboard the second ferry. The ferries have simple, little saloons below decks where smørbrød and coffee are served. Above the open hold where the bus and a few cars stand idle, is an open deck. On this forty minute second voyage, some of the passengers bravely huddle on benches beneath the captain’s bridge to watch the scenery float by.
More rocks, out of which white streams plume into the black waters of the fjord from high above. There whole atmosphere is so watery, and getting even more watery. Misty clouds merge into snowy mountain peaks. A magical variegation of damp greys where it is hard to distinguish where fjord finishes and mountain begins, then sky takes over.
A small Norwegian woman stands chatting loudly in English to a gangly youth, who looks Turkish. A group of German girls talk quietly among themselves, and a few other passengers stare out at the overwhelming greyness of it all, seemingly unimpressed by the splendour of so many different shades and types of grey. And how many more there are in the world than one could ever have imagined. As I go below to the car deck on my way for a coffee, and just to take a peek, the bus driver struggles to open the door of the bus, which he inadvertently has locked. With my extra pair of hands we manage to wrest it free.
It is a long journey to Hammerfest, through mountain gorges eaten away over the millennia by raging rapids, and others carefully sculpted by slow-moving glaciers. But, the trip is more of a rich, moving tapestry, constantly on the change, than a bus ride. It’s well worth taking the time. After all, nature took a hell of a lot longer making it look like this. I was lucky enough to bag a seat at the front of the bus for the best views. In one of those strange, sunny and brightly-coloured interludes along the mainly grey tapestry, three little girls wander along the roadside in the middle of nowhere, without a care in the world. One carries a small bunch of wild flowers, she waves and smiles sweetly as we pass. There are beautiful wild flowers everywhere, during this part of the journey, higher and more colourful than I would’ve thought possible so far north.
And then we are up by the snow line, back in the lands of greys tinted with sepia, where winter has yet to relinquish its icy grip on the landscape despite the fact it’s midsummer. High wooden fences have been erected in places to prevent the wind drifting snow onto the road, and to halt small avalanches. Here and there stand spindly woods of silver birches.
The bus hauls a little higher where summer seems to have ended before even spring had the chance to begin. From being perhaps as high 21°C, at times, the temperature plunges to 8° or 10°C.
Apart from local Norwegians travelling to the nearest big town on shopping trips, or home for holidays, a good proportion of the passengers on the bus are tourists on a pilgrimage to see the midnight sun at NordKapp, which has become extrememly popular over the last few years. Two young German girls doze in the seats across the aisle. We stop at a restaurant in the mountains for a twenty minute break in the six and a half hour journey to Alta. The bus driver sits at my table, and we chat. He tells me he lives in Tromsø. He wants to buy a house there, but can’t afford the prices.
Back aboard we continue a long and gradual climb. Quite suddenly, the landscape gives way to a barren plateau. We are in tundra territory now. There are no trees at all, just rock and marshy scrub. Down in the valleys, we had seen some Samis in national costume selling reindeer antlers and tourist trinkets. Up here are traditional Samis still following one of the most ancient ways of life in Europe. They live in small huts, caravans, and the tepee-like tents they have occupied for thousands of years known as lavus. Many still lead nomadic lives as rendeer herders. There seems to be nobody at home in the camp today, except for two Sami boys who play with a toy cart by the roadside.
When we come to a wooded copse, it is dotted with weekend cabins for townsfolk. It’s difficult on such a grey and cold day to imagine why anybody would want to come up to the desolation of the tundra for a summer holiday. But the wide, fast running river below gives a clue. I suspect it provides good salmon and trout. Many of the cabins have rowboats moored nearby. Occasionally, we see cars pulled up by roadsides. Beyond, dark, grey silhouettes of men in waders can be discerned. Fishing rods extended, they stand in the shallow, calmer pools at the edges of the rushing river.
Lower down again, the birch woods become more prolific once more. Our bus, and a lorry, pull up to let a few stray sheep cross the road. They hustle and bustle in a way that makes me think Norwegian ducks possess a lot more nerve than their sheep. From time to time we stop at village stores, dropping off passengers, parcels and newspapers, and picking up new passengers. The buses provide valuable services for these isloated nothern communities that go far beyond the ferrying of passengers. For many they are a lifeline. At these stops, schoolchildren on long summer breaks, with nowhere else to go, sometimes hang about to see what the outside world bring them, while most of it just stares out the window as it passes them by.
At one stop a local young vandal, and his accomplice, look about suspiciously before carefully removing a poster for a discothéque pinned to a wall. He rolls it up and stuffs it into his jacket. It’s probably destined for his bedroom wall. Like all young and inexperienced villains, he can’t wait to boast of his crime to the first passing girl he sees.
At Alta we have to change buses. Now, there is a middle-aged Dutch couple across the aisle at the front of the bus. The woman talks to me. She tells me about that evening’s football match between Italy and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, a young man babbles endlessly to the new bus driver. He seems slightly disturbed. As the driver tries to get on with his work of collecting fares the young man goes on and on about seeing him in the next few days. The driver doesn’t seem interested. This second bus is much fuller. We pick up yet more travellers from the airport just outside Alta. An old lady takes up the seat next to mine, and a young girl has to sit on a folding seat in the doorway.
As the bus driver dispense more tickets, a taxi pulls up to drop off a couple of Americans for their flight from the airport. The man is big and wears a baseball cap. White hair escapes from beneath its rim, and he sports a white, walrus moustache. His ample stomach rests on his belt. His portly wife wears ornate spectacles with rococo gold trim. They’re probably in their 60s. They unload a mountain of luggage. It is this particular moment the woman rather ironically chooses to press a flower in a book she pulls from a bag. Then, as the taxi driver waits patiently for his fare, she starts rearranging things. Clothes are pulled from one case to be stuffed into another, until everything seems to be open. Even though they are making the entire busload of passengers wait – whether through selfish oblivion, or just a naturally uncaring attitude towards others – rather than causing us annoyance – they provide an amusing interval. Nobody could help tbut smile at the spectacle of such a eccentrically-dressed, self-possessed couple. More than anything, they look as though they have taken a wrong turn on their way to Las Vegas, and somehow ended up beyond the Arctic Circle, on a completely different continent. Finally, their luggage sorted out to their satisfaction, we are permitted set off again.
Even though Alta has a population of almost 20,000, there is hardly any traffic beyond the town limits. As soon as we are a couple of kilometres from the airport, it thins out to almost nothing. In the middle of nowhere – almost everywhere is the middle of nowhere by now – we are waved down by a young boy. There are no seats left, and he has to sit on a step by the driver.
I have to change buses one last time by a motel and filling station in the middle of another nowhere. I am not completely alone, a few other passengers are also bound for Hammerfest. This last leg of the journey is only 59 km. The landscape transforms once more. Now the bus flies through clouds that blur into the fjord so it becomes impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins. At times, they look as if they are rising out of the fjord like steam at the start of a modern Gothic horror film. But it is too cold for that. The road hugs the bare mountain side, as it weaves along the fjord. A magnificent suspension bridges looms before us, and I can feel Hammerfest drawing near. This is the home of my grandfather, and the generations before him. He grew up with these mists, he travelled this very road one day in his journey to the south, where he met my grandmother, sired four children before abandoning them. The descendants of his brother and cousins still live here, and soon I may get to meet them.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming click here for the next installment: Hammerfest, the town on the Edge of the World→