„Only in the darkness can you see the stars.“
Martin Luther King Jr.
It was about time for the Zebra to head north again. To bring us close to nature and let us enjoy some nice days away from all the pandemonium on the planet. Several month before, we decided to take the risk and start planning for another trip to the arctic, all the way up to the North Cape. Go hunt the Aurora Borealis, have some good food and quit reading mails and stop doing business calls for some weeks. Adventure time.
Because of the pandemic, there was significant risk we would not be able to make it. We planned during summer, having been aware that cases might raise during winter and that travel might become very limited again. But we counted on the Norwegians being down to earth people that understand how to balance getting protected and to keep life up and running. Although we tried to do all bookings with as many options to change plans up to the last minute as possible, it was still likely that we would need to abandon them. In the end, we decided it would be only money lost if we would have to stay at home, but the perspective of spending some time in total darkness and serious cold combined with likely hazardous weather and difficult driving conditions was just too attractive for us. A few days before we left, we actually received mail from Color Line that operates the ferry that was supposed to bring us from Kiel to Oslo, telling us that two days later they would stop serving this route, so we knew that it could become a one way trip. After a night of sleep over these news we decided to stick with our plans and move forward with preparations and luckily -spoiler alert- we made it.
Still, the risk of not being able to go to a restaurant for some food was quite high, so apart from all the camera equipment, we packed some basic utensils for cooking including a set of pans, kitchen knives, a water boiler and even a portable cooking plate. We also brought some food, just in case we would be facing a complete lock down with shops closing. We also prepared for a plan B (and C) so in case we would have to survive outside, we would remain protected. The packing list was over 500 line items.
Most of the line items on the list were dedicated to technology, though. Cameras. Lenses. A lot of lenses actually. Batteries, chargers, memory cards and matching readers, cables, tripods and all the necessary tools. We checked which parts we would need twice to have some redundancy. We started ordering equipment as soon as possible, but with the supply chains being heavily affected by the global crisis, we had some material we could not get in time, so we had to go for our fall back scenarios. Originally, we wanted to go Canon only, my target was to put my big movie camera to good use and try to capture 4k video of the northern lights. Combined with some new mirrorless bodies the idea was to only pack this one brand, but we were only able to get one of the two bodies we wanted to bring, so one Nikon plus bare basics for general and night sky photography joined us. Still that meant dedicated batteries and memory cards plus all the other things necessary. Capturing video also meant I needed a more powerful laptop, the old one wasn’t able to cope with editing 4k footage. One might assume that with all what we already have it should be simple, but we started to make a couple of vendors quite happy with new orders.
A few days before Christmas we finished preparations and packing and got into the car. Christmas we spent with family in Germany, then checked current restrictions, and found that even before our first night on the road, we would need to get tested for Covid as Schleswig-Holstein was more strict on the papers you had to have before you could check in to hotels. It was quite some relieve that the tests gave us negative results which we received while driving north already.
Out night in Kiel was fantastic, the Hotel Atlantic is a place we can highly recommend. And as it was the second day of Christmas, they even treated us with a very nice dinner, which was a little unexpected as the kitchen was supposed to remain closed during this evening. Our room was giving us a fantastic view over the harbor and we could enjoy very nice weather with some good sunshine, something we knew would become hard to get over the next weeks.
The Zebra was well prepared. We brought spare parts including lamps and wipers, we mounted the refrigerator using a bracket that was bolted to the back seat area and had the car checked by a garage as well. We also removed the rails for the roof tent and were quite happy about doing so as the trip would be very long and the rails were quite noisy.
On board of the ferry we found that this time we did not receive the fantastic upgrade to the owners cabin that we enjoyed the last time. Still it was enough space and good comfort and food on board was enjoyable. We were aware that when deboarding, we would need to take another Covid test and wondered how that would be done. To our surprise, Norwegians seem to trust people to act responsible and handed over two self-testing kits to us when we drove from the ship, telling us to use them when we would arrive at our hotels and contact authorities in case they turned out to be positive. With all the turmoil we had before, this was both refreshing and reassuring. Both of us had been fully vaccinated at this point of time, but neither of us was looking forward to getting this stupid and dangerous virus.
Getting out of Oslo was tricky. We had a lot of fresh snow and there was heavy traffic on the streets. Luckily, a few hours later roads became much less crowded and the weather actually was quite nice.
Here we are. Zebra and if you look closely, small Zebra as well. Plus Elk on the back. Over 5000 kilometers (3100 miles) of driving still ahead of us, 11 days of traveling just to reach the cape not counting buffer time spent somewhere. Several segments with ferries, all the usual and unusual unknowns of weather and road conditions, changes in plan and the typical hazards you will encounter as a traveler. Throughout the trip, we had to handle hotels that cancelled our stay, ferries that were not available any more and other hiccoughs. Luckily with perfect Internet reception throughout the trip, it was not too much of a challenge, we always found a solution. Although sometimes it was awfully close to disaster, but… no risk, no fun.
The Zebra started to get aquatinted with local conditions. Step one is to properly apply camouflage. Although I have this nagging feeling that the number plate is not really necessary to identify our car.
Small Zebra was on its usual lookout position and took care we were driving carefully.
And because the Elk is not this much visible on all of the photos we made featuring the Zebra, here is one completely dedicated to it.
With the sun either being unavailable or just close to the horizon, we had ample of opportunity for getting some great shots of sunsets and sunrises.
Still the weather was not consistently good. Quite the opposite actually, we had several heavy winter storms, everything in between light and brutal snowfall and in general felt quite challenged by those conditions. Driving was always tricky, unfortunately sometimes rather more on the real difficult side. But all that was expected, winter in Norway is not a for the faint of heart.
As beautiful as those icicle are, the road was unfortunately covered by the very same material.
But no such things could stop us on our way up north. And although the Arctic Circle might sound impressive, to us it was just a first gateway to the real trip. As usual, the center is closed anyway, there are not many people driving through. Sometimes I wonder why, because what you get to see is still breathtaking, admittedly sometimes breathtaking because the air can be extremely cold. But I don’t complain, because this meant more landscape for us.
And it meant that taking a picture from the middle of the road is completely risk free. No other cars in sight.
To pass from the mainland to the Lofoten, we used a shortcut. Just a few hours with the Hurtigruten meant over a day saved. Funnily it was the very same ship we book for our journey back, so we were able to check with the crew about amenities, e.g. asking if we could book an upgrade for our cabin.
Boarding procedures have been different than usual, but in general, this time nothing really was usual. We had to take tests before we were allowed to move freely on the ship and both of the times we planned for using the Hurtigruten, we did not really have an acceptable plan B. So I must confess, I was a little nervous while having to wait those 15 minutes for the test results. And I had to hand over keys to the Zebra to the crew so that they would board the car. I was very relieved that a) we passed the tests and b) the Zebra was not on the quay some time afterwards.
Little did we know that our days on the Lofoten would offer us the best weather conditions we had for the trip, it became quite bad afterwards.
The view from our hotel. Middle of the day by the way.
In between Christmas and New Year, most of Norway is closed down. Not a lot of public life, people enjoy some quiet days.
Just like we did.
We spend three nights in Svolvær, a great place to explore the Lofoten.
Essentially we used the day time to go search for some spots to go for nightfall. Unfortunately no Aurora Borealis at all, we sometimes sat for hours in the Zebra waiting for the green lights to appear.
The best about all the snow was that it made the landscape feel fresh and untouched.
We encountered several other tourists. Some of them really nice people, some of them we preferred to avoid.
Our journey included several small villages.
In some spots, you only found a single building in the middle of nowhere. I would consider this to be quite an attractive place to live, still I wonder how long it will take to receive parcels with new camera equipment.
Temperatures continued to drop and the landscape was freezing over.
With all the snow, it was difficult to find some good spots for the night. You need a good road so you can drive there, you absolutely need a place a little away from the road for parking the car and you don’t want artificial light. As the forecast for the Aurora was bad anyway, we decided to wait on this parking lot before we would go for one of the spots we identified earlier. But nothing happened in the sky, so we headed back to the hotel.
Still searching for spots brought us to a couple of rather small streets.
Luckily the Norwegians have excellent service keeping the roads open as much as they possibly can. We met several snowplows all day long and even though there was a lot of snowfall sometimes, it was amazing how well you could travel even though you had to be extra careful. There is limits to what those trucks can do, the rest is simple physics and you should try to avoid cold forming your car to new shapes.
We stopped at this spot every single time we visited this area over all these years to take a picture.
Sunrise? Sunset? Hard to say.
And it did not really matter to us, there was beauty to be found behind every corner of the road.
Or just by turning around.
The water was extraordinarily calm on this day.
It felt like the mountains are floating in front of us.
The Zebra trying to check whether camouflage was working. I think it did quite well.
At least the back of the car was always covered in snow. Sometimes it became rather difficult to access our luggage.
Slowly the snow crept everywhere. Luckily this were not normal off-road tires, but one specifically designed for driving on snow and ice. We packed spikes as well, but most of the time we had some snow on top of the ice, so with some careful driving, it was possible to cope without mounting them.
Still whenever a sign like this came up, I was driving quite slow, as the Zebra loves to go sideways. So I became a nuisance for some of the other cars that every once in a while appeared behind us. I always let them pass as soon as I could and most were thankfully patient enough. Only most though, we had a completely crazy truck driver that was driving extremely close to our back in very heavy snowfall and that flashed us like crazy. That part of the road had barriers left and right and there was no opportunity to let that idiot pass and I truly hope that his license would be ripped to pieces as soon as possible by police.
In general, we got some good exercise getting to the photography spots.
We also encountered local wildlife.
A lot of local wildlife.
Uhm… a rather unusual encounter of local wildlife?
Well, actually it is rather easy to also encounter such wildlife if you know where to go. There is a small, but beautiful polar park that advertises as being the world’s northernmost animal park.
A great place to test your lenses.
And wonder what that cat might think of you? Maybe it considers how to prepare you for dinner?
No such danger from this fellow.
Certainly a bigger risk with this one.
No, even though this is a fierce hunter and likely a big danger to small prey, there is nothing to fear from this polar fox. I would still really recommend to keep your fingers outside of the fence.
Essentially we had the park for us alone, the few other visitors left early. Originally, we also feared that the wolves left as well, as they were nowhere to be seen. Luckily we found them. And even more lucky, they gave a birthday concert for my girlfriend which I found to be very considerate and polite as I am not much of a singer.
Feeding wildlife is important as well. In general I believe in treating animals well, especially because I will eat some of them afterwards.
After the Polar Park, we arrived in Tromsø. And headed out immediately to one of the spots we knew from before. Still same day and the birthday of my girlfriend and nature made the biggest gift – the Aurora was showing up and giving us a fantastic show.
It really was a great night. The lights danced for several hours.
We even got a brief corona.
The first time we were in this spot was quite different, those trees have not been there when we started doing polar light photography. It was a nice reminder that we have this hobby for many years now.
But no matter how many times I witness this spectacular display, I’m not growing bored of it.
At the end of the activity, I actually mounted my movie camera as well to get some test footage in preparation of the nights to come. I configured the camera beforehand, but it takes a couple of attempts to get it right and you need some nights to optimize your settings. The light was by far less strong at this point and barely visible any more. The recording showed some heavy banding, but I consider this to be subject to removal once recording format is switched over to raw. With stronger lights, I feel very positive about this camera being able to capture 4k real time footage of the Aurora and I was looking forward to some more recording. Unfortunately it turned out to be the only opportunity we got for this, afterwards we only had one more night where the Aurora showed up in between heavy clouds. So I have a good reason for another trip up north. Not that I really need a reason for going back, though.
We also drove to one of our favorite spots to visit a herd of reindeer that is usually residing there.
Yepp, still there.
Extremely cuddly animals. Unfortunately for them, they taste really great.
So before being eaten, we make them subject for our photography.
Those young ones decided to test their strength.
This one was doing yoga.
We hope to see them and their offspring again the next time we are visiting.
After Tromsø, the weather conditions went from so-so to quite bad. It already started when we left the Lofoten, there was a couple of traffic accidents, one being a bus that crashed in a dish and fell over. Luckily nobody was harmed.
Snowfall became a constant.
And visibility dropped drastically. We had our trip planned so that we drove during the precious hours having at least some light.
The Zebra was just soldiering on.
We had to pass a couple of mountain roads that brought us to places significantly above sea level.
Temperatures dropped heavily up there and the snow was extremely deep.
Driver’s perspective. With all lights switched on. The Zebra has a set of extra lights that are just within range of being still legal. And I was glad to have them.
Finally we arrived at our destination. The small town of Skarsvåg. We rented one of those two buildings for five nights. Most of the time we spent indoors, the weather was brutal with many storms.
Inside, it was cozy and we also had a great kitchen that we used to do some great cooking.
Our kitchen knives that we brought all the way from Switzerland. Not quite average, those are hand made according to my specifications and tailored for my hands. A joy to use, but I need to remember to sharpen them better before of the next trip, they still came with the original sharpening.
The best part about this hut was that we could keep our equipment fully assembled all the time and just needed to bring it outside to start shooting. During one night, we had Aurora (and a strong one), but still way too many clouds. It started slowly.
But displays like this give you hope for what might come next.
There is was. It became a strong display and unusually colorful, with many reds and blues.
Lens selection was tricky, though. The cloud coverage was too strong for a 14mm prime. Luckily I also have a good 20mm prime that is even a little faster than my 14mm.
We deliberately stayed close to the settlement so that we would get some illumination of the landscape as well. The lights were strong enough for this.
We enjoyed that night a lot. Unfortunately although we had quite clear sky the night after, there was zero light to be seen.
Dynamic range of the camera is quite impressive and even those shots worked well.
One of the reasons we selected this hut was that according to their advertisement, it is the northernmost fisherman village on the world. Here you can see how close it is to the cape which is on the left of the picture with Skarsvåg on the right.
We got to visit the cape on the first day of our arrival.
This year, there were many more tourists and instead of the first convoy being reserved for private cars only, it was including many buses already. People actually formed lines in front of the globe.
Zebra on the northernmost spot of this trip. We finally made it.
And we were lucky having had the opportunity to go to the cape. They shut down the road going there for the next days with no convoy. We tried to go there a few more times but have been told that the necessary conditions are not met.
But we enjoyed the sight and the location. Most of the people will quickly go inside of the building anyway, although the cruise ships seem to offer much better clothing to their guests than before.
Do not block the emergency exit. Uhm…
In between storms, we went hiking a little.
Not too far, but it was nice nonetheless.
Back in the hut, equipment was waiting for the next opportunity.
Which did not came. Sometimes we really had a pretty clear sky, but nothing green turned up.
Nope, this is not a red Aurora. Just your usual sunrise.
Not Aurora as well, but still very spectacular. The day we started heading south again was quite nice for some hours which suited us well. Especially because we were the only car on the road. We were extremely lucky, most of the roads had been closed because of avalanches, but we could join a convoy that had two large snow plows up front, then one powerful Zebra and then a security vehicle driving rear guard. A convoy just for us! After this one, the North Cape was shut down completely for three days and we would have missed the ferry.
When we arrived in Hammerfest and saw our ship arriving, we felt quite relieved. Still with the necessary Covid test ahead of us, but we haven’t really interacted with a lot of people the days before. We also visitied the Isbjørnklubben to renew our membership in the royal and ancient polar bear society.
Proof that the Hurtigruten still is a mailboat.
Departing from the cape is always giving me mixed feelings. I truly love this place and its serenity. But heading south also will bring back the sun, which is not bad either after you have not seen it for two weeks. Would I go and live up there? Thinking about it…
As we checked with the crew already before, we have been able to upgrade our cabin so that we got one of the suits. That turned out to be a clever move, because the storms did continue to blow and the sea was quite rough. We actually had to spend a lot of time in one harbor and then skipped most places before we came to Bergen. So we had to spend a lot of time in our cabin, having this level of comfort was well worth the investment.
Admittedly, small Zebra was claiming most of the cabin for itself.
After we deboarded and had a good time in Bergen with some very nice dinner we were confronted with having to depart from a different port to get to Denmark. Originally we wanted to spend two nights in Bergen, but the ferry stopped operation and there was only one line left that departed from Larvik, another 430km (270 miles) drive for us. The journey felt like it was mostly over already and although the weather started with very heavy rain, we felt completely relaxed. Then we passed a couple of signs indicating that we would need to join another mandatory convoy going over a mountain pass. A short time later we were among a bunch of cars and trucks waiting for the plows and then the shit hit the fan (sorry for my language). Up in the mountains we encountered a massive snowstorm with visibility dropping massively.
Driving became outright dangerous, the roads were heavily covered in ice and it became incredibly difficult to keep the same distance to the car in front of you. Several times I lost sight of it, although it was probably only 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) in front of us. The stakes in the ground left and right of the road turned invisible as well, we had complete whiteouts. Problem was, if you accelerated too much, you crash into the car in front of you, you have insufficient traction for slowing down fast enough. At one point, I had to do an evasive maneuver steering into a snowbank to slow down sufficiently. Luckily the Zebra is tough as a nail. But I must confess, I would prefer to never have to do something like this again in my life.
We passed a car that crashed, so we had to wait for some time until the drivers of the plows and security vehicles got them on the road again. In such a situation, you are actually not allowed to leave your car, you wait until rescue gets to you. If you get lost up there under such conditions, you are dead, period. Just for your reference, there is a large snow plow in my rear view mirror.
This one. Now visible again after we successfully got to the other side of the mountain pass.
Deep frozen Zebra. Zebra shook it all off as if nothing had happened. Such a great car.
And suddenly the weather turned and it looked as if nothing has happened.
The last sunset from this trip to Norway. Just the adventure we were looking for. Four weeks of getting close to being off the map.
One question remains, though. We had ample of time to think about it when we were stuck in our hut during those snow storms up at the north cape. Where to go next? Internet reception was good and indeed, we found a place on Google Maps that is even further north. Quite a lot further…