2012: The North Called

At the end of 2011, I was picking my way through the wall of images I’d taken in the South Atlantic in November and December and reflecting on the first half of my ‘temporary escape’ from meetings and daily commuting.  I had three months of clear time before the office called me back – and I could (with a few budgetary constraints) do anything I wanted.

As I sat in Oxford contemplating, I was clear that I didn’t want to jump onto a plane for another long haul flight either back to south America or to Australia or New Zealand anytime soon (both directions had been on my ‘maybe-list’).  That made ground-based stuff look promising, and the observation that I’d not yet managed to get any decent images of the Northern Lights pointed my way North.

Norwegian Coastal Sunrise
The first idea for the next phase was based round boats and trains around Scandinavia – and I was on the point of booking when an email arrived telling me that a collection of old frequent flier miles was about to expire.  I opted to burn these on flights from London to Stockholm at the start of February to start a Scandinavia meander, and back from Copenhagen at the end of February to complete the loop.  Between the two flights I decided to try and fit in city-time in Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen, a trip up the Norwegian Coast to Kirkenes on the Hurtigruten Coastal Steamer, a block of time in the Lofoten Islands and a few days in the Faroe Islands.  Surely by spending that much time up North – and quite a lot of it inside the Arctic Circle I’d get at least one decent look at the Northern Lights.

January 2012
Before heading properly north, I drove up to Shetland – in a car pretty much filled with sofa – to finish working through the southern images.  Shetland offered all the things you would expect in January – big storms, lots of rain, low clouds, not much light.  It also offered things you might hope for, but never expect, such as the Northern Lights. My first really good view of the Northern Lights was from the kitchen window of the Shetland house, and my images from just outside the front door made lots of news websites around the world and was the background image for a Sky News item about how dramatic the aurora had been in late January.

February 2012
Having already ticked off the Northern Lights in Shetland I was able to set off on my Scandinavian Odyssey from a Business Lounge at Heathrow (I had a lot of frequent flier miles to use up!) ready to add to my ice photo collection.  Stockholm delivered on the ice.  Overnight temperatures down around -20C ensured that the harbour froze over – the morning serenade (heard from a water level cabin on a yacht converted to floating hotel) was the harbour ice-breaker grinding through the ice to allow the regular passenger ferries to run.  The always comfortable – and usually on-time - Swedish and Norwegian railway moved me from Stockholm to Oslo to Bergen ensuring that I was able to appreciate snowy landscapes and still have enough time to see at least some of the attractions in each city.  Having stayed on a boat in Stockholm, I made sure I got to the Fram Museum in Oslo to see what life was really like when ice was grinding along the hull of the boat, before heading to Bergen to join my boat heading for the far North.

There are two sorts of boats that Hurtigruten use on their traditional route up the Norwegian Coast.  Most of the boats look like small-scale cruise ships, but a couple of the older boats date from an earlier generation and look much more like ferries of old.  They don’t have things like car decks, and all the cargo needs to be either wheeled up the gangway, or winched on board.  Once I had decided to go up the Norwegian coast I wanted to use a traditional boat.  So in early February I found myself in a little cabin, deep in the Hurtigruten version of steerage ready to go North.  Suffice to say that the boat looked very much the part of the traditional coastal steamer (lots of brass and mahogany), and the engine, just a few feet from cabin, sounded very much like a traditional coastal steamer.    The other observation is that the Hurtigruten is THE way to get a glimpse of Norwegian coastal life – most days the boat stops for long enough to let you get a flavour of the towns, and you always get a full on view of both the Norwegian weather and the dramatic coastal scenery.  The Hurtigruten is also the perfect way to see the Northern Lights – they aren’t guaranteed to put in an appearance, but if they do you’re probably going to get a good view.  The Hurtigruten isn’t, however, a great place to photograph the Lights – a rolling ship and long exposure make for interesting images, but not good representations of the aurora.  The ships timetable does mean that you will wind up having time in some remote places at strange times of the day – just accept these as the opportunity to photograph some great sunrises!

Having chugged (and I use the word advisedly, now being an expert on chugging boat engines) north to Kirkenes, further north than Nuuk in Greenland, and as far East as Cairo. I spent long enough in Kirkenes to realise what -25C feels like, and to discover that there isn’t much to do there other than practice your Russian in the shops, then turned round to go back through a very dramatic winter storm around the North Cape to the Lofoten Islands.  Lofoten had just had its first serious snowfall of the year, and the despite making driving a little bit entertaining did provide some excellent photographic opportunities – snowy landscapes, glimpses of the top of the Lofoten Wall, and another fix of the Northern Lights.

The Faroe Islands was a complete contrast to Lofoten – it’s a bit further south, and a lot further out in the North Atlantic, and it’s been on my “islands to visit” list for many years.  From the geography you might expect the Faroe Islands to be a mix of Iceland and the Scottish Islands.  And you would be exactly right.  From Torshavn, possibly the only capital city with a grass-roofed parliament, a direct flight got me back to Copenhagen to complete my Scandinavia jaunt with a couple of glasses of probably the best beer in the world. Well it tasted good at the time.

March 2012
March was the time to head back to Shetland.  My Scandinavian timing meant that I’d missed the big fire festival in Shetland, so I did make sure I was on Shetland for my local version of Up Helly Aa.  This involves a large number of people dressed (more or less) as they imagine Vikings might be dressed, parading down the main road accompanying a replica Viking longboat which was torched while floating out into one of the local bays.  I didn’t see any evidence of fire festivals anywhere else in Scandinavia on my travels around the north.   The other attraction that Shetland in March provided was several opportunities to both see and photograph the northern lights yet again – not quite as intense as the January offering, but with lots more colours.

April 2012
At the end of March I should have been contemplating a gentle end to my six months away.  I did actually complete the time with not one, but two, trips to Finland (which I had missed out on the main trip).  The first trip was a chance to ski, ice-climb, snow-shoe and particularly to learn to drive a dog-sled (and to see the Northern Lights again).  The second was a rather less frenetic bird-watching trip with the goal of spotting a Great Grey Owl.

Having packed quite so much into the first three-and-a-bit months of the year, the next few months were going to have to work pretty hard to compete.

May 2012
June 2012
I managed a short trip to Denmark for a Confirmation Party in April (Denmark having been short-changed earlier in the year) before resorting to more traditional photography themes in May, June and July.  

May provided unconventional nesting blue tits in Milton Keynes, June snail-racing in Oxford, and July puffin spotting on Shetland. 

July 2012

But just in case my passport started to seize up, I spent a very hot and sticky week in New Orleans – mostly working but just finding enough time for a boat trip along the Mississippi.

August 2012
That was all before the country got submerged in Olympic euphoria during August – and I can’t deny that I got caught up in it too. I’m not sure when I’ll get to take pictures at another UK Olympic Games, so I took plenty at this one.

September 2012
September found me back up on Shetland.  While southern England was busy getting drenched Shetland was seeing what might be called a Viking summer – with clear blue skies and light warm winds.

October 2012
Occasionally the sun did shine in the south too –the biggest bar code in world (photographed in October on the OU campus) always looks better with a spot of blue sky behind it.

November 2012
November was another fix of Shetland – this time with dramatic seas to accompany the sunshine.

December 2012
My final trip for the year was to add another country to the catalog.  I never managed to get to Yugoslavia, but having got to Slovenia a couple of years ago, it was good to add Serbia to the list.  Belgrade is a fun place to spend a weekend – and I hope I’ll get a chance to visit again in the not too distant future.

During 2012 I spent over 50 days outside the UK, although the number of separate trips and different countries I clocked up makes it seem like it should be rather more than this.  I don’t, yet, have a long catalog of trips lined up for 2013, but I do expect to be clocking up a bit more time inside the Arctic Circle (can't ever have too much time up North), and it would be fun to add the Antarctic Circle to the list too.

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