Aslan has well and truly emptied his lungs on this little island, nestled green and flourishing among peaks who’s thick winter blankets have been shed for patchwork quilts. Waterfalls burst from every mountainside and tentative flowers poke their heads from the liberated earth.
I turn my head for a couple of weeks and in the flick of the magician’s wand, a whole new island is formed. This was my impression as I sailed slowly between the delightfully familiar mountain ranges and caught the first glimpse of Tromsø’s southern tip…the bridge…the Arctic Cathedral. “I’m home!” I was almost hopping over the ship’s deck among the clicking tourists with the pure glee of a small child. As my first venture out of the region of Troms since it welcomed me nine months before, I could feel the profound truth in absence making the heart grow fonder…
And the venture?
It all began on an early mid-May morning, standing at the roadside in Tromsdalen, my Catalan companion holding a bright yellow sign reading “SØR” and looking at my thumb, stuck out infront of me, thinking “will this really work?” Five minutes later we found ourselves sitting in the back of a friendly caravan, speeding “SOUTH”.
In three glorious days, peppered with the sitting-high-above-twisty-mountainside-roads-next-to-lorry-drivers-humming-along-to-‘best-of country’ alongside the predictable arm-getting-sore-are-we-ever-getting-out-of-this-no-mans-land moments, we were the recipients of the kindness of 15 drivers who took us the 1,400 km to a beautiful little town called Otta. Fortunately it was such a nice place since, the following day – having awoken to a freshly sunsoaked morning in a stunning forested valley – our watches ticked and the sun climbed in the sky and we found ourselves still there, thumbs-of-hope outstretched and willing to see that wonderful flash of the indicator on one of the very few cars which sped by. Several hours later we decided that our thumbs, signs and smiling faces had taken us pretty far and a cosy bus – which we happily found was leaving from Otta that evening – could do the rest. Thus, 4½ days after leaving our Arctic home, we arrived in the south-west city of Bergen; famous for its national heritage buildings, awesome fjords and plentiful rain.
And we experienced a good deal of what Bergen promised to offer! At least in the patches of downpour, we were able to escape to a café and meet up with the girl who had happened to sit next to me back on my first train ride leaving Oslo and heading north late last July. The magic of travelling and keeping contacts (in other words, ahem, facebook).
Anna (my hitch-hiking accomplice) and I parted ways as she returned to Tromsø and I travelled deeper into Sogn og Fjordane to find my old Edinburgh friend Ellie. I found her in a very picturesque wee village called Flekke, resting at the end of a glassy fjord in the midst of a rolling and impossibly green landscape. Here we caught up on the past months with lush and soggy walks, canoeing, a night camping on an island with a group of her students and, of course, an exclusive tour of the Red Cross Nordic United World College, a stunningly-situated and inspiringly progressive international school in which she has been teaching IB economics for the last year.
I left Ellie to round up her year and complete her final week of teaching for the culminating stage of my southern exploration – the journey back to the north. 2am – I stood alone on Florø pier, rucksack by my side and engulfed in a strange darkness. Strange for no other reason than for the fact it was dark. My eyes scanned the strip of black horizon when all of a sudden a collection of little lights glided into view, drawing ever closer, glistening on the still surface and growing to the size of a colossal ship which I gazed up at from my lonely platform in awe.
And so it was – curled up on a long sofa under the twinkling lights and mirrors of the ‘panorama lounge’, I drifted to sleep letting MS. TROLLFJORD carry me home again. I was 3½ days with the wind in my hair, gazing out to the ocean, gliding between vast rocky islands jutting out of the water as if in a Jurrasic Park film set, exploring the coastal towns of Ålesund, Trondheim, Bodø, Solvær, loosing myself in the world of Jostein Gaarder and melting with the surreal pleasure of lying in a jacuzzi, ever more Arctic landscape drifting by… There was something satisfying about having experienced the timely-transition of dark nights to light over the previous month living in Tromsø while now experiencing the same transition all over again over distance. By the third night, dozing out on deck, wrapped in my sleepingbag and Sigur Rós creating the feeling of the music from my ipod bursting from the clouds, I could open my eyes at any time of the night and never see a darkened sky.
Not only do we have no hint of dark up here, but that great ball in the sky which I didn’t see for two months now bathes us in its rays 24/7. And with an unbelievable two week stretch in which summer hit Tromsø with a bang – cloudless skies and 20degrees (average for June is 9…last year it was 6) – we had the best opportunity to get a bit of colour on our cheeks and soak up the nightless days.
Among the bbqs, picnics, sea-swimming and exploring a freshly opened-up island on my newly acquired (very second-hand) bike, two particularly memorable trips stand out from these sunkissed days…
One still and peaceful Sunday morning, I sat on a rock by the sea at the other side of our neighbouring island where a Finnish friend and I had cycled to the day before. The sun shone high and strong as it had been doing (literally) non-stop for days and I let it warm my freshly woken-up face and I gazed over the water. The waves lapped quietly at my feet, the odd call of seagulls scattered the air and occasionally a strange blowing sound filtered into my consciousness. I vaguely wandered whether there was a large bottle lying somewhere which the waves or slight wind were making sing when all of a sudden there was a splash and the momentary glimpse of a black tail flipping into the water. I almost fell off my rock in surprise, stood up, sat down again, pricked my ears and squinted my eyes and waited for the next round of blowing which this time, I noticed, accompanied a black hump curved just above the surface. The hump disappeared and reappeared three times before the final audibly deep breath and the flip of the tail marking it’s entry to the depths. My friend who had been lying in the tent, apparently also half-aware of the odd sound and, so she says, thinking “what on earth is Ruth doing..?” suddenly scrambled out into the sun with and exclaimed with a flash of revelation – “are there whales?!”
We sat there on the rocks for a good couple of hours, watching the hump and tail performance by several, what we believe were killer whales, a group of which had seemingly decided that this quiet bay on the shores of Kvaløya (infact meaning “Whale-island” in north Norwegian) was a perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday morning. We quiet agreed.
One particularly magical thing about the midnight sun is that the hours of the day are truly your own. Nothing more than shop opening hours need determine your sleeping pattern and one can be happily kayaking at midnight, for example, if one so pleases. On one day, truly embracing this freedom, I met with some friends at 9pm for a midnight hike up Tromsdalstinen, Tromsø’s Big Friendly Giant who, wearing his white cloak, has watched over Tromsø all winter, while we have watched him, awaiting the time to be able to scurry up his back once again. We reached his summit around 1am to be greeted by the most spectacular 360 view. The sun shone a crisp glow over the teeny Tromsø island, the fjords twisted out to the open sea and sharp peaks rose and fell in every direction around us looking even more dramatic in the clear midnight light. We gulped down this breathtaking surrounding for over an hour at the top while celebrating the birthday of a friend with a surprise cake and a very satisfying beer. Halfway down the mountain, we took a rest under the high and warm 4am sun and just couldn’t resist curling up right there, scattered on the grass like a dozing reindeer heard, and letting pure sleepiness wash over us. 7am, we awoke as the sun was shaded by the mountain top, reached the bottom by 9, cycled home and were showered and dozing in my bed by 10am.
In the last few days, the clouds have been making up for their fortnight’s holiday and the island, for me at least, is gradually emptying. The strings of goodbyes are a constant reminder of ‘coming to an end’ of something which, in its own way, gives a special sheen to everyday that is left here. I push aside the misplaced feeling of ‘missing it already’ and smile at the thought of having time left to continue enjoying my one, very long, summers day.