We drove on from the campsite at Brennfjell and paused briefly to get in contact with Birgit. I had intended to organise a visit, but the last weeks before we set out had been so full that I’d forgotten. Luckily she was in and we called in for coffee and a tour round the animals, which included a new puppy, some new pigs and this gorgeous foal.
Heading north from Storslett, the sky was grey as we drove up onto Kvænangsfjellet. This section of the E6 road is often closed in winter. Its austere beauty was enhanced by the clouds which swathed the mountains and we stopped for photos, just as the road began to drop back down towards the sea.
I hadn’t managed to find accommodation for the night in Alta, but after a couple of unsuccessful queries in hotels, we managed to find a very cosy cabin at Solvang Camping, a little north of the city. This was a more modern version of Norwegian camping: a single room with a bunk bed and a sofa bed, where we sat and watched the movie Bølgen while eating leftover pizza and chocolate chip cookies. Having slept soundly, we rose the next morning and set off towards Nordkapp.
The scenery changed again as we drove along the coastline. Jutting cliffs overhung the road, grey slate layers, unevenly weathered, sometimes slanting at crazy angles against the sky.
I had expected a bridge over to the island of Magerøya, but instead there was a seven kilometer tunnel, dropping to 212m deep, under Magerøy Sound. The scenery here was different again: a tundra like landscape, bereft of trees. Streams tumbled down steep mountainsides and rocky pools lay in the hollows. And though the journey had been beautiful, it was a relief to arrive in Honningvåg and check into the hotel.
After resting for a while, we took Triar for a walk. He had been very patient in the car, but the scent of reindeer woke him up. They are everywhere on Magerøya. Wonderful to see.
I know I usually update on Saturdays, but this week is special. My long awaited, coronavirus-postponed trip to Mattilsynet Troms and Svalbard’s most northerly outpost in Storslett is finally here. It was a wonderful drive up through glacier carved mountain ranges and along the steep edges of fjords.
The sun was shining on the snow-capped peaks, and waterfalls are beginning to appear, mostly at present as tiny droplets falling from mossy rocks, but soon there will be torrents as the ice melts and the world turns green.
As I neared Storslett, the land beside the fjord stretched out. Small boat sheds, cheerfully painted, stood beside ramshackle frames where cod would be hung to dry in winter. I didn’t manage to take a picture of the frames, but I will try to do so on the drive back, or when I’m out and about with Birgit, who is my mentor for this week.
By the time I got to my hotel I was tired and fell asleep for an hour, but I woke to the most wonderful evening sky. Goodnight all!
Does clearing and cleaning a house ever go fully to plan? It never has for me, and this time was no exception. Having loaded most of our worldly goods into the moving van the day before, we realised that we had wildly overestimated how many things we could fit in the car alongside a large dog cage and a guinea pig hutch. Not only that, but in a moment of wide-eyed horror, we discovered we had forgotten to empty the tumble drier. Inventive as ever, John piled the clothes into boxes, and the guinea pigs ended up on a pedestal. Unbowed and undeterred by the lateness of the hour, we set out at seven o’clock on Friday evening and drove to Flekkefjord.
We had stayed there back in February, with no idea that the world was about to be turned upside down. I also had no idea then that almost six months later we would use our knowledge of all the local back roads to find a place to camp.
Despite the long hours of daylight, it was well and truly dark before we began to set up our tents. Feeling our way around in the light of the car headlamps, we bent our tempers and several tent pegs, but finally everything was complete.
The green tent in the front housed me, my son John, and Triar the dog. He slept remarkably well. The blue tent housed… the guinea pigs, Kiwi and Susie. Clearly we were intent on camping decadence (although John’s allergy to hay might have played a small part in the decision). Washing hanging in the background gives a homely feel… but reflects the disorganisation that occurred when I put the washing machine onto a short cycle after work… quite forgetting the (still accidentally full) tumble drier took four hours and seven minutes that we didn’t actually have.
Before going to sleep, I went outside. Looking up through summer trees, the sky was bright with stars. A soft breeze cooled my skin. Somewhere in the distance, the gentle clank of a sheep bell sounded. Retiring into the tent, I lay down and felt Triar slip into place beside my feet.
Day two began well, with a walk in the sunshine. We realised though, as we repacked, that the complex jigsaw we had created the night before, slotting a guinea pig cage on top of boxes, would rapidly become untenable. Rolling down the back windows and dropping things in as they were raised was not a great long-term solution. We drove on to Kristiansand, looking out for a pet shop.
Spotting one, we parked in the shade and took Triar out of the car. We needed someone to charm the staff, and he seemed the most likely. We bought a new, smaller travelling cage for Kiwi and Susie, and with Triar’s inspirational waggyness, managed to persuade the staff to dispose of the old one.
It was something of a relief to find that Kiwi and Susie seemed perfectly happy in their new cage, as well as in the car. Indeed I can recommend a cavy road trip. Sitting at head height behind us has finally convinced them that we are mostly harmless.
I don’t have many photos of the early days of the trip. We made it as far as Oslo on Saturday, and found a place at a campsite. Although the lack of bedrocks was an advantage, there were far too many people around for my liking, not to mention a plague… of mosquitos. Eaten, but not discouraged, we drove on the next day to Trondheim, stopping only for some pastries, and then later to look at Ringebu Stave Church.
Unfortunately on Sunday evening, the fine weather began to break up. Clear skies were replaced with ominous clouds. Abandoning the tents seemed a good idea, but as we were turned down by potential rental hosts, one after the other, we began to despair of finding a roof over our heads to shelter from the impending storm.
We were rescued by a local schoolteacher. Sending us his phone number in a clandestine code (private lettings being forbidden by the website we were using) he offered us the use of his family hytte. Lots of Norwegians very sensibly have a weekend retreat situated less than an hour from home. We were a little nervous as we followed his car up the longest unmade track in the universe… after all, who knew if he was actually an axe-murderer? Scandinavian horror films must surely be based on something or other…
We needn’t have worried. He took us to the most wonderful cabin, complete with a turf roof, candles and a wood stove.
There was running water and electricity too… not always guaranteed. The composting toilet in the little shed out the back only added a little aromatice piquancy to the situation… but at least it was painted a very calming blue.
And Triar very much enjoyed the garden, even though it was still very wet by the next morning.
Though we were reluctant to leave, we dragged ourselves away this morning and turned back onto the E6 northwards. The southern farmlands gave way to tall pine trees. We spent the day driving through a forest that spread in every direction as far as they eye could see. The mountains grew higher too, wild and rocky as we drove up to Mo i Rana, where we are staying tonight in another rented house.
I’m not sure when I will be able to write again. I had hoped to update a little more often, but this evening is the first time I have had the magic combination of simultaneous electricity and internet.
It’s been a wonderful trip so far, and as we go further north, and the motorways near Oslo become a distant memory, we plan to take our time a bit more. After all, I don’t start work for a week… and there’s so much more to see. It all depends on the weather.
Tomorrow morning, we will reach the Arctic Circle. It’s all very exciting! But for now I have to go to bed.
“Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss….” C.S.Lewis.
I wonder how life would have gone, were it not for COVID-19. I can recall the fascination I felt, back in late January or early February, searching on social media for information from Wuhan. I watched with interest: those alarming films of people dropping in the street, reading that China (of all places) had gone into a lockdown so tight that people were not allowed to leave their homes.
It filtered through to me, as I watched those posts unfold, that something big was happening, though back then I had little sense of impending doom. That came later, as the virus began to spread. One by one, day after day, new posters appeared at work, telling us how to cough, to wash our hands, to use gel as we entered, notices in Norwegian and English and several other languages I didn’t understand. The canteen shut and then the borders of the country: closed to anyone who didn’t live here.
And as I watched the figures fall in Norway, I watched them rise in the UK.
I miss my parents. That is undoubtedly the worst in all of this. I had been looking for a new job for a while with no success. But with spring, the realisation came that I was no longer tied to Rogaland for my son’s schooling. And in the midst of a wave of homesickness and fear for my parents, who by now were locked down themselves, with no obvious end in sight, the grand idea came to me that perhaps now was the time to return to the UK.
But it was not to be. Though I found a wonderful practice close to my parents, who wanted to employ me, they were unable to make me an offer. They had sold the practice a year earlier to one of the corporates, and the corporate had a moratorium on taking on new staff due to … coronavirus.
But by now anyway, the insanity of a move back to the UK was starting to hit me. With the increased border security, it was unlikely I would be able to get the dog into the UK, let alone the guinea pigs. Juggling quarantine requirements would mean I would have to find somewhere to stay when I returned to the UK. It would need to have furniture, as mine would take a while to arrive. Likely many shops were shut, and even if they weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go. Quarantine with no bed and no TV…
In the midst of all this chaos, a job popped up in the North of Norway. Mattilsynet (the Norwegian equivalent of the UK Food Standards Agency) were looking for a vet. The duties were very wide ranging, as often happens in remote places. Lower population often results in less specialisation… and that has always suited me. Easily bored, I love doing different things. And so I applied.
The interview was tough. I’d had a few by then in Norwegian, but it didn’t get much easier. I’d applied for an old job that I’d done part time before, and had been turned down, I was told, on account of my language skills. This time round I was prepared for the type of question. I had even thought up some possible answers. But explaining the concept of working as part of the management team of a fast growing chain of emergency clinics, covering all the complaints without the expertise of the best (and only specialist) veterinary insurance company in the UK because my boss wanted to prove to them that we could manage without them, is not the easiest thing to translate, not least because veterinary emergency clinics are unheard of here.
Then there was a medical question about cattle. I was sent a text with a scenario and had to answer questions around it. Despite having ten minutes thinking time, I translated one of the words wrongly, and therefore gave a confusing as well as incorrect answer. I think it was at that point I considered just blurting out that there was no point in continuing, because it was obvious we were all wasting our time.
So I wasn’t particularly hopeful. Still, I had a job which was almost full time. We weren’t on the streets, or likely to be. And then, to my astonishment, a contract arrived. No explanation, no welcoming phone call: simply sign here if you want the job.
I signed it of course. It was so precious I didn’t want it to slip through my fingers. And then I contacted them about accommodation and about moving and about how I wouldn’t be able to start on the day that was written on the contract because, with the best will in the world, I couldn’t start there the same day I finished here, because there was 2000 km in between.
All that happened only three weeks ago. And in one week’s time, I will be driving north to take up my new post. It’s a thirty hour journey and I will be taking it with my son John, our dog Triar, and a pair of guinea pigs.
We will be camping! I hope the weather holds. John is planning on walking and lake swimming. I’ve bought a new car to take us up there… well I say new. She’s seven years old, but my first BMW… all wheel drive. I wanted something that could tackle snow.
I am about to move up into the Arctic Circle: Land of midnight sun and interminable darkness.