From Hammerfest to the Lofoten Isles by sea

DARK GREY SKIES shedded unsympathic drizzle as I waved goodbye to Solveig from the deck of the Hurtigruten ferry. She cut a lonely figure; the only one seeing someone off from the Hammerfest quay on a miserable July day.

Geggen and she couldn’t have made my visit to their hometown more agreeable. After inviting me to stay at their house they had treated me like a long-lost relative. The Arctic outpost on the edge of the world could never have been the same without them.

They took me everywhere. To the musem, out midnight fishing, and to the beach. Years later, I still can’t get over the fact there’s a beach a little way out of town, not so very far from the North Pole, where children actually swim on sunny, summer days. It looked far from inviting the cold, grey, midsummer day I saw it.

And then there was the oddly-named Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society – odd because there are no polar bears on the Norwegian mainland. They also introduced me to local archivist, Per Arnesen who filled me in with some more Planting family history.

Though a very small population had lived on the island for generations Hammerfest only gained official town status in 1789. From Per I learned the Plantings were amongst many new settlers persuaded to migrate to the town in the early 19th century in order to discourage other nations from making claims. My great grandfather, a carpenter, helped build it. He was also an active socialist. My mother wouldn’t have like that. She had insisted he was a wealthy cabinet maker.

Among other things, Bill Bryson described what was once the northernmost town in the world as: “An agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way” in his book Neither Here nor There. He’d travelled there to see the fabled Northern Lights, and make it a symbolic starting point for his journey through Europe to Istanbul. Perhaps he should’ve chosen to vist during midsummer. At least he might have got out a of the hotel room, he claimed to have spent most  of his time in, and frolicked in the midnight sun, as I did. Well, frolic might not be quite the right word for stumbling out of a bar half drunk.

For most of winter the sun never rises. But that doesn’t make it completely without light. Towards the end of the 19th century, having seen street lighting at an exhibition in Paris, two of the town’s merchants decided to take the latest phenomenon home. Since 1891 the citizens of Hammerfest have been able to walk about the town through the one long, night that is winter without bumping into one another, as the town became the first urban settlement in northern Europe to install electric street lighting. That was the one thing Solveig and Geggen couldn’t show me, as the sun never sets in summer.

Soon the ferry was taking me south, splicing calm seas while weaving a course between the majestic silhouettes of many dark grey islands on lighter grey seas overhung by leaden grey skies.

Not very far out of Hammerfest naked tundra gives way to wooded slopes clinging to the sides of sheer mountains. Rising out of the fjords they dwarf the painted, wooden houses staring out towards the Hurtigruten ferry at their base. Clean, white streams, formed from patches of remaining winter snow melting, tumble down deep gashes into the fjords below. Their rushing waters have been etching further into the pure granite over countless millenia. In turn, the deep, dark fjords have been gouged into the hard igneous rocks by the advancing and retreating glaciers over various Ice Ages.

Hurtigruten feries ply virtually the entire West coast of Norway, over 45,000 km of it. Setting out from Norway’s second city, Bergen, they sail right up to Kirkenes a few km from the Russian border.

Bergen was the birthplace of Edvard Grieg, the country’s most famous composer, best known for The Peer Gynt Suite.

Dinner in the ship’s cafeteria brought me back to 21st century blandness. Plastic food and plastic furniture. Were it not for the gentle roll of the ferry and the ever-present thrumming of the engines below, we might’ve been in a modern shopping mall.

A drunken Norwegian wobbled to a table where his companion was sitting. He looked as though he’d just crawled out from beneath a bush. Both had the ruddy complexions of a pair of old salts. A young woman sat at the same table. Slapping the woman on the back heartily, the drunk sat down. They looked nothing like a couple. Swigging from a half flask filled with vodka, he started talking to her as though she were deaf, his loud voice showing signs of having been matured in a mixture of alcohol, nicotine and and grit for several decades. Two other young women sat at an adjoining table. Having had little success with his first chosen victim the drunk turned his attention to them, shouting across to their table. But something about them made him lower his tones. The first young woman went to join the other two, putting in place part of the jigsaw. Obviously, the three were together. Out of the blue, they began singing a Norwegian song in the most beautiful voices imaginable. The scene was so surreal it might’ve been staged. Their harmony so sweet, tears began to roll down the drunk’s cheeks. It was almost as if a trio of angels had been dispatched from heaven to save him. After completing the song, a different member of the trio got up to sit with the drunk and began talking softly to him.

The professional quality of their voices could’ve only come from years of practice, and I judged they must belong to religious group. The young woman whispered to the drunk, before pausing to hold his rheumy gaze for a moment. It was almost as if she was trying to hypnotise him into to recognising the error of his ways, and to take the path of righteousness. But with his vodka bottle still half full, he wasn’t quite ready to go down that way yet. He started babbling loudly again before taking another swig. Dragging his eyes away from the angelic young woman’s he shouted across to me. Though I speak some Norwegian, I couldn’t understand a word. The young women were getting up to leave, when the drunk and his companion persuaded two of them to stay a little longer. The third wandered off. The main show over, so did I.

Since I first sailed on the Fred Olsen Line’s Blenheim from Newcastle to Oslo in the 1950s, I’ve always loved travelling by sea. My mother took my three sisters and I to visit her family. I was barely three-years-old and my youngest sister was still a babe in arms. The two eldest were toddlers. The idea of an little town with shops, bars, a restaurant and cafeteria on a floating island composed of steel still fascinates me.

I get the strong feeling my mother may have been trying to escape my father at the time. Whatever the reason, we stayed with my grandmother, aunt, uncle and their three young sons in their small, overcrowded flat at Sinsen for some months before returning to England.

Though still expensive, travelling by ferry worked out a little cheaper than travelling by bus, as I didn’t have to pay for accommodation. My cabin was small but comfortable. Passengers hopping from one or two  ports often sleep on long sofas and chairs in the lounge. Tickets allow travellers to break journeys this way, and see a lot more of the country.

On land or at sea, most of my mornings start with bringing my diary up to date. I started keeping a diary in the 1980s when travelling through Turkey for weeks on, end buying old tribal kilims and rugs to take back to England. After filling a page, I usually write for a couple more hours on my laptop. On the ferry I wanted to observe, so only wrote for short spells.

The couple of times I took laptop into the bars and lounges, I soon got distracted by the life going on around me. A routine began where I spent a good part of the day and night roaming about the ship.

I often saw the drunk on the wobble, still as drunk as the night before. When I wasn’t wandering inside the ship, I was out on deck watching grey fjords and mountains shrouded in mist float by. As the weather pickd up we were treated to the sun coming out and the sea began to sparkle.

Gradually, my fascination with my fellow passangers turned to boredom. To relieve the monotony I transformed into a bar butterfly, flitting from one bar to the next, sipping a glass or two of heavy nectar along the way. Upon seeing the drunk pass by yet again, I decided to stalk him. He was bound to do something that would relieve the endless routine. He was soon to prove me right. In a saloon on the seventh deck he started talking to an American. The American was terrified. In a trembing voice he shouted “I don’t understand you” a couple of times before picking up his bag and fleeing. The drunk looked slightly bemused by the reaction. Basically, he was harmless.

In the absence of anymore entertainment, apart from a TV room tuned to interminable episodes of an Australian handling highly poisonous snakes as recklessly as a child might play with a length of garden hose, I returned to stalking the drunk from a distance. By coincidence or design, he kept on running into the young Christian women.

It was almost midnight, when we arrives in Tromsø, and still as light as day. I was back in the cafeteria watching the news on another TV. The young Christian women were back too. It was inevitable the drunk would turn up, still drunk as drunk as ever. As soon as he spotted the trio of women he went over to join them. But they had grown weary of his constant attention. A barmaid told him to leave them alone to no avail. Eventually, a member of crew arrived and threatened to throw him in the brig if he didn’t behave. But one of the young women took his side, saying she didn’t want to see him get into trouble.

The ship loads and unload goods at each port of call, and would be docked at Tromsø for an hour or so. A welcome chance for a change of scenery, I headed to a bar I had visted a couple of occasions on my last visit. Though it seems an age ago it was just the previous week.

After Hammerfest, the city seemed big and cosmopolitan, its people, modern and sophisticated. It is the capital of the north after all. I realised I hadn’t seen darkness in over a week. Heading south once more had me feeling a touch of regret, for some reason. It was like I was already heading home. The light told me how far south we’d come. It wasn’t so much dark, as lacking as much light as Hammerfest had at the same hour.

The bar was almost empty. I ordered a beer and sat at a table. There was free internet access so I checked my emails. By the time that was done, it was already time to leave. The ferry sailed at 1-30am. As I neared the quay, a pretty black women approached me, and asked me in English if I had 30, 40 kroner, or 100 kroner without telling me what was on offer. She didn’t need to. Her accent was African. Probably one of the many Third World refugees who managed to escape grinding poverty and persecution. I smiled and said I hadn’t. Her friend told her it was time to go to wherever they were bound. She was right, it was time for me to get back on board ship well.

The third day on board, and I was not so enamoured by the voyage. It was starting to feel like an open prison stuffed with ageing middle class tourists. Most were smug and self-satisfied, clogging up the lounges with their bags, stills and video cameras. Though mainly drawn from all over Europe, nearly all dressed and looked the same boring way. Grey and khaki and brown. They were always early to grab the seats with the best views in the forward lounge, only to nod off from the effort. Whenever they wandered off to stretch their legs, often for hours, they left coats draped over chairs, to reserve, and deprive, others of them . Their sense of entitlement and selfishness was extraordinary. They took up as much room as possible to discourage others from sitting too close, almost as though there might be hordes of lepers aboard.

The ship souvenir shop gave a good idea of what they aspired to, its shelves overflowing with brightly-painted, carved wooden trolls and plates, plastic knick-knacks, key rings, reindeer horn bottle openers and ‘Norwegian style’ woollen garments. All made in China by the look of them.

The ship plied its way through everchanging weather, through cloud, mist and rain. From time to time, patches of dark mountain became highlighted by a late night sun shining through gaps in the cloud. Here it was brighter; the golden rays shifting as spotlights, there the light dimmed, or disappeared. We called into small ports along the way to set down people and goods down, only to pick others up. The Hurtigruten fleet still delivers post.

Though we were still north of the Arctic Circle, we had sailed a long way south. It’s over twenty-nine hours from Hammerfest to Svolvær, in the Lofoten Isles, by Hurtigurten. There are some amazing sights along  the way. Narrower fjords squeezed by lofty mountains and filled with cruise liners, are negotiated solely for the benefit of the tourists and their cameras. These days, tourism provides a major source of income for the company. Before road and air travel became more widespread the ferries’ most important role was in the vital services they provided to otherwise, virtually isolated communities.

The amount of video, film, disk and memory used up along the way was staggering. I got tired of tourists expecting me to move out of the way just so they could take photos. My enjoyment of the view became secondary to their desire to capture it on film. There’s a distorted sense of priorities here. The right to a snap, seems to have taken precedence over the right to view scenery first-hand in peace and unmolested. Nobody will want to see more than a few of their boring photos before they are condemned to lie forgotten. in a box, in an attic, for eternity.

The only group of tourists with any sense of life on board the ship turned out to be party of elderly Italians. They crowded armchairs close together in a huddle, to engage in animated conversation each afternoon, and each evening. At least they seemed to be getting something out of the trip. Everyone else looked as though they were on their way to a funeral. Problem was, the funereal mood began to affect me. I longed to reach Svolvær, my chosen destination. I had picked it solely because Knut Hamsun, Nobel prize winning author of Hunger, once worked in a store in the town. Probably my favorite novel, it played a little part in inspiring me to write Pedersen’s Last Dreamwhen I re-read it in an hotel in Armenia.

Late into the night and early in the morning, I worked on the first draft of Pedersen’s Last Dream, in my cabin. My object in the book is try to blur dream and reality to the point even I lose my perception of which is which.

Apart from search out my family in Hammerfest the point of my journey was find somewhere cheap to live and use as a base. A difficult task in one of the most expensive countries in the world, but not impossible. One of my Norwegian cousins had told me it was cheaper up north, but later admitted he’d never been there.

I had thought to stay on one of the Lofoten Islands for a few months. But a brochure aboard ship, warned me to expect accommodation more expensive than I’d bargained for. I started to think I might have to change my plans. Only as a last resort, a trip across the border into Sweden, might be the answer.

The ship docked at a small town housing the Hurtigruten museum. A old vessel had been taken out of the fjord to be mounted above the museum building. The 70kr entrance fee, seemed a rip-off,  so I went for a walk in the town instead. Full of gawking tourists looking for stuff to buy, everywhere was driving me mad. We were soon back on board.

Finally, after what seemed like a voyage of weeks towards the last few hours, we docked at Svolvaer, on the Lofoten Islands. At last, I could disembark to see what was next in store, on my journey of a lifetime.

Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming

Any article mentioning Svolvær has to include a song from the beautiful Kari Bremnes, who was born there Sang til Byen



2 thoughts on “From Hammerfest to the Lofoten Isles by sea

  1. Damn you write vividly, Bryan. Love picturing the Arctic outpost. And the thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way 🙂

    Naked tundra gives way to wooded slopes clinging…. Just love it! And the music halfway (I’m playing it now as I read on). Love how the old salt’s voice had been matured.

    But with his vodka bottle still half full, he wasn’t ready… ha ha.

    The way you spoke of snapping photos, the priority there, reminded me of my father visiting me in Perth after Daniel was born – with his Filipino wife. I took them to Cottesloe Beach (as you know, Daniel & me spent many free and wonderful moments there), so sure he’d breathe it in and soak it up – irresistible, surely? – but he just posed for a photo and then suggested another landmark. It was bizarre to me. It really, really struck me, I recall.

    I so much love your writing, Bryan.


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