The swamp rat

Sometimes it is educational to see a dead body, and sometimes it is just sad.

I found this native swamp rat (Rattus lutreolus) at the front of my house. The body was very fresh and just the head had been munched.

Swamp rats are kinda cute and furry when alive. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to see it in that state.

Eastern swamp rat (Rattus lutreolus); photo by Catching The Eye, Wikimedia Commons

They are active both day and night, preferring to live in dense vegetation in swamps or next to streams. They tunnel through the vegetation, eating seeds, stems, insects and fungi.

Puzzling over how it died, I asked around. The general consensus, especially from a friend who is a wildlife carer, is that a cat got it. She has seen sugar gliders with only their heads bitten off by cats.

This makes sense because there were cat footprints on my back deck that day. (There are some advantages to not sweeping.)

Cat footprints

Australia has a huge feral cat problem, with one estimate of 1.7 billion native animals killed each year. I just can’t see how such a scale can be resolved, but I try to do my little bit.

I’ve put my cat trap out but had no success yet. Moggies beware, I’m gonna get you.

 

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The rakali

The rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) is one of Australia’s native water rats, active in both freshwater and saltwater habitats (wetlands, streams, farm dams, lakes, estuaries, beaches). They have been seen by neighbours in my area, but unfortunately not by me.

So I was thrilled to see a photo of one taken by neighbour Liam Corbett, who was visiting Ballarat (Victoria) at the time. The rakali had come out to sniff his sneaker.

Rakali (photo by Liam Corbett)

They are the closest thing to otters that we have and can get fairly large:

Rakali have a body 231–370 millimetres (9.1–14.6 in) in length, weigh, 340–1,275 grams (0.750–2.811 lb) and have a thick tail measuring around 242–345 millimetres (9.5–13.6 in).

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rakali

They eat fish, crustaceans, shellfish, small birds, eggs, mammals, frogs and reptiles. Their webbed feet aid in swimming.

They also can eat cane toads without dying – flipping the toads over on their backs to get at the stomach, thus avoiding the poison sacs on the shoulders.

Rakali are mostly solitary, and forage at dawn and dusk; when not foraging they rest in hollow logs and burrows.

They used to be hunted for their soft, waterproof fur, but have been protected such that they are common now, although shy and not often seen.

So it seems I’d better slip on some sneakers and quietly hang about some streams if I hope to see one in the wild.

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Pipefish and seahorses

[Here is an article I wrote for the Richmond River Historical Society Bulletin. I write a regular, short column, ‘What’s in the Nature Room?’, about an object in that room. Thanks to the Queensland Museum for IDs of the specimens.]

If you’re snorkelling in the seagrass beds or fishing in the lower reaches of the Richmond River, you might be lucky enough to see pipefish and seahorses. They hide there among the seagrass, sucking in plankton and the tiny animals that live on the leaves.

The seahorse has a prehensile tail, wrapping it around a seagrass leaf to steady itself and hide. Pipefish tails are not so agile, but the animals are camouflaged by being about the same shape and width as the seagrass leaves, and drifting gently about among them.

Some pipefish species have the shortest life spans known for vertebrates and can reproduce as early as two weeks after being born – they grow fast (up to 2 mm a day) and die young (some at about 5 months).

The females of both pipefish and seahorses transfer their fertilised eggs to the males, who incubate them in a pouch or just in a group along the underside of the trunk or tail, depending on the species. This is handy for protecting the young, unlike, say, octopuses, which lay their eggs under a rock or in a crevice and must be constantly on hand to protect them from predators. Young pipefish, after birth, move away from the father and are completely independent. Predators they must avoid include turtles, seabirds and fish.

The two pipefish with the shorter ‘snouts’ in the photo are labelled Lissocampus runa (the javelin pipefish). This pipefish occurs in shallow sheltered inshore areas and tidepools to 3 metres depth, from Hervey Bay, Qld, to south of Nowra, NSW.

The third, with the longer snout, is a Duncker’s pipehorse (Solegnathus dunckeri). Its range extends from Fraser island, Qld, into the southern NSW coast. It reaches a maximum of 50 cm. Duncker’s pipehorses are usually found at depths of 20−80 metres, but are occasionally washed ahore on ocean beaches.

The seahorse is likely to be White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei), which is known from Mackay, Qld, to just south of Sydney, NSW. It reaches about 17 cm in length.

Unfortunately, seagrass meadows are one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth, because of human pollution and damage to the leaves, stems and roots by boat propellers, trawlers’ nets, and dredging. This endangers larger creatures like dugongs, which eat seagrass, too.

All species of seahorses and pipefish are protected by law, so look but don’t touch!

Live Lissocampus runa; photo by Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons

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Bush stone-curlews

I was astonished to see these bush stone-curlews (also know as bush thick-knees, Burhinus grallarius) in a park in an urban area about an hour and a half from home. They seemed quite used to people – even a car driving over the grass near them (!) did not cause them to fly off.

Bush stone-curlews resting in a park

These birds feed at night on insects, snails, small lizards, seeds and the occasional small mammal.

According to Birdsinbackyards:

Bush stone-curlews have a remarkable courtship dance. Individuals stand with their wings outstretched, their tail upright and their neck stretched slightly forward. The birds will stamp their feet up and down, like a soldier marking time. This courtship ritual is repeated for an hour or more at a time and is accompanied by loud and constant calling. Eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in the ground and both adults share the incubation and care for the young.

The driver of the car had obviously not seen – or chose to ignore – the prominent signs in the park.

I’ve seen beach stone-curlews (Esacus neglectus) in far north Queensland, but this was a first for me. Tick!

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When is a porcupine not a porcupine?

I do like a nice corpse. You can get up close to see intimate details and not worry about disturbing an animal. Of course, it’s sad to see something dead, but that’s life (or not).

After a storm at Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, we trawled the waterline to see what had washed up, as is our wont. One of those things turned out to be the remains of a porcupinefish.

Turning it over revealed …

In amongst the wreckage was the jawbone, both top and bottom. The Beast tells us:

They feed nocturnally on hard-shelled invertebrates like crabs, clams, mussels and sea urchins. Their teeth are fused together into a plate, which enables them to crush through the hard shells. This also gives their mouth that beak-like appearance. Porcupine fish have thick, rubbery lips to protect them from the spines and broken shells of the prey they eat.

Startled porcupine fish suck in air or water to inflate their bodies, becoming a prickly balloon-like shape to defend themselves from predators and some contain a neurotoxin a thousand times more potent than cyanide in their ovaries and livers. They are also good at offense, crushing the shells of clams and other marine mollusks …

(From https://phys.org/news/2017-08-jaws-porcupine-fish-reveals-species.html)

You can also see a photo of a ‘blown-up’ porcupinefish at The Beast .

I contacted the Queensland Museum, who kindly allowed me to use their photo (below) of the spines and jaw of the threebar porcupinefish, Dicotylichtys punctulatus. They are very similar to those of my corpse, and the threebar has been found from southern Queensland to northern Tasmania, so the distribution is right for Ballina.

Threebar porcupinefish, Dicotylichthys punctulatus, jaw and spines (photographer Jeff Wright; reproduced with permission from the Queensland Museum)

The Australian Museum says:

The species is found on coastal and offshore reefs, often in rocky areas. … Porcupinefishes in general feed on invertebrates. … The teeth are fused to form a single plate in both jaws. … The flesh is reported to be poisonous but the spines are not toxic.

One thing that didn’t come with my corpse was the gas or swim bladder.

The gas bladder (also called a swim bladder) is a flexible-walled, gas-filled sac located in the dorsal portion of body cavity. It controls the fish’s buoyancy and in some species is important for hearing. Most of the gas bladder is not permeable to gases, because it is poorly vascularised (has few blood vessels) and is lined with sheets of guanine crystals.

The Queensland Museum says:

Although many fishes have swim-bladders they are generally soft and decay quickly, whereas those of the porcupinefish are very tough and survive for a long time after the fish has died. In life when agitated the porcupinefish can inflate its body and wedge itself into the reef, making it nearly impossible to swallow by a predator.

Swim bladder of porcupine fish, Diodon sp. (photographer Jeff Wright; reproduced with permission from the Queensland Museum)

Assuming my corpse is that of the threebar porcupinefish, it would have looked something like this in life.

Three-bar porcupinefish (Dicotylichthys punctulatus) (photographer Richard Ling, Wikimedia Commons)

So the answer to the question posed by the headline is: when it’s a fish!

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Tenterfield museums trip

We volunteers at the Richmond River Historical Society and Lismore Museum have a sort of “busman’s holiday” – an expression first recorded in 1893 in the UK – once a year (but not last year for COVID reasons).

Tenterfield is just over two hours’ drive from Lismore, so we started early. Our president drove eight of us in a minibus to Tenterfield, where we met another volunteer who found it easier to drive from her home than into Lismore. Some of our volunteers drive a long way to pursue their interests!

The first museum we visited was the Tenterfield Railway Museum.

The station [now heritage-listed] opened in 1886 and is a rare survival of something that was once common throughout NSW nineteenth century railway precinct. When the line was completed to the border in 1888, Sydney and Brisbane were linked by rail for the first time. Services declined gradually from the 1970s and finished completely in October, 1989.

Tenterfield Station platform. The railway crew housing was in the building on the far left at the back.

Volunteers maintain the displays inside the buildings and also the many locomotives and machinery – both rail and agricultural – on site. Two out-buildings once housed railway workers and soldiers in World War II.

Working model railway

Denise won the prize for best “find” when she discovered a coffin (unused, we hoped!) in one of the carriages. In the old days, the dead were occasionally transported by train to their final resting place.

Photo by Denise Bennett

The large grounds also contain railway crew quarters and barracks for soldiers in World War II.

I’d forgotten that each state used to have its own width of tracks – all different. This caused a lot of messing about because a train could not fit on the tracks if it wanted to go interstate – there was much unloading and reloading of passengers and freight. This was inefficient and expensive, and eventually a standard gauge was adopted in all states.

Next on the agenda was the Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts museum.

Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts museum (photo by Mattinbgn, Wikimedia Commons)

Best remembered for his fiery and impassioned support for the Federation of Australian Colonies, Sir Henry Parkes took his Federation call to the people at the Tenterfield School of Arts on 24 October 1889.

The museum is obviously well-funded – many large rooms, shiny wooden floors, clean and well-looked-after. The rooms cover the memorabilia of Parkes’s political and personal life (he had three wives over a long life); the long table at which he gave his historic speech; a games room; a library; and a collection of Aboriginal artefacts. I was disappointed at the Indigenous display, but that is probably because the one in our own museum is so good. The building also contains the town cinema.

As Premier of New South Wales, Parkes had been to Brisbane for talks on the federation issue with his parliamentary counterparts. He broke his return journey at Tenterfield to tell the people ”the time was close at hand when they ought to set about creating a great national government for all Australians”.

Source: https://www.schoolofartstenterfield.com/museum

You can see interior shots of the museum here.

Tenterfield also celebrates the life of entertainer Peter Allen, since he was born there. The song he wrote about his grandfather is Tenterfield Saddler, and the saddlery still exists as a museum, much photographed by tourists.

Tenterfield saddlery – now a museum – made famous by Peter Allen (photo by photo by Mattinbgn, Wikimedia Commons)

All that brain stimulation made me hungry, so lunch was had inside the warm Courtyard Cafe, conveniently at the Parkes museum. The cold wind outside encouraged indoor eating – the tableland temperatures are much lower than ours on the coast. Then onwards to the Tenterfield Centenary Cottage Museum.

Tenterfield Centenary Cottage Museum consists of the Cottage Museum, General Sir Harry Chauvel Gallery, Petrie Pioneer Cottage and various examples of machinery from a bygone era.

The cottage now houses a large collection of memorabilia and historical material relating to Tenterfield and its surrounding district, with the cottage being the nucleus of the complex.

Domestic museums are more my speed than political ones, maybe because I like to be reminded that I grew up in a classic South Australian sandstone, late-1800s cottage somewhat like this one. Many of the domestic appliances and furniture are things I recognise from my parents’ or older aunts’ places when I was a kid.

Tenterfield Centenary Cottage Museum
Bedroom of Centenary Cottage
Stone cottage parlour fireplace

The parlour also contained comfy chairs, a piano, old concertina/button boxes and various dust-gathering ceramics. Those were the days when families made their own fun.

There’s a unique object in one of the rooms – a strange and disturbing (to modern sensibilities) kangaroo-skin wardrobe. The skin was laid on the cedar frame. Built in the late 1880s and allegedly one of a kind, it would be of national historical significance.

One of the enthusiastic volunteers at the Cottage Museum shows us the strange kangaroo-skin wardrobe.
Detail of the kangaroo skin wardrobe

One of our group was much taken with the early (1930s) electric fridge. It would have replaced an ice-chest, much to the happiness of the woman of the house.

The adjacent Petrie Pioneer Cottage, built of wood, showed the more humble lifestyle of a worker’s family (the blacksmith who had the stone cottage would have been thought of as a more than a mere workman – it was a respected and much needed occupation; he would have been self-employed).

Inside Petrie Cottage

I must have been very small but I certainly remember my mother warning me to keep my fingers out of the mangle when she used a copper of boiling water to wash the clothes, then wring them out with one of these.

She was very pleased to have a wood stove in the kitchen, like the one below, replaced by an electric one when Dad (who was a plumber) could afford it.

Many of the outbuildings house agricultural equipment and tools.

It’s fun to speculate on what some tools were used for. This is possibly a butterfat quality tester.

I wasn’t familiar with bark huts, but they were certainly built by pioneers who needed a cheap or temporary shelter like this one.

Bark hut

Thanks to the many enthusiastic volunteers who showed us around. It’s always interesting to see how other regional museums display their wares – and possibly steal some ideas for our own!

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Sing, cuckoo!

The channel-billed cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae) is a regular feature of life in summer around here. Each year the birds fly down from Indonesia and New Guinea to our eastern states between August and October, and leave generally in February or March.

These cuckoos are big birds – the first time I saw one I thought it was a toucan, then remembered we don’t have toucans in Oz. They also make big noise – and the shrieks can continue throughout the night in the breeding season.

Channel-billed cuckoo adult; photo by Paul Balfe, Wikimedia Commons

Channel-billed cuckoo pair; photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons

They are the largest parasitic cuckoo in the world. Birdlife Australia puts their breeding habits succinctly:

The channel-billed cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of the Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen, the Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina and members of the crow family (Corvidae). Unlike many other cuckoos, the young birds do not evict the host’s young or eggs from the nest, but simply grow faster and demand all the food, thus starving the others. Often the adult female will damage the existing eggs in the nest when she lays her own and she may even lay more than one egg in a single nest.

Not only the magpie, currawong and crow are parasitised, as shown by Andrea McIntosh’s photos. Andrea is in my photography group and gets a lot of birds at her place. The unfortunate in this case is a peewee or mudlark (Grallina cyanoleuca; in South Australia we call them ‘Murray magpies’), a bird about half the size of a magpie.

Their main food is native figs and, as you can see, sometimes insects.

You can hear the raucus call here. The theory is that the call distracts the ‘victims’ who pop away from the nest to investigate, and the female cuckoo pops in to lay the egg. Why this happens all night, I have no idea. Between them and koels (also night-callers, which sound like they are going to explode at the top of their call), it’s very noisy here in the country!

There’s an English medieval round, ‘Sumer is icumen in‘ (click on the link to hear it), celebrating the arrival of the cuckoo and with it the summer:

Summer is a comin’ In loudly sing, cuckoo!

Groweth seed and bloweth mead and springeth wood anew,

Sing, cuckoo! Ewe now bleateth after lamb, for calf and (now) loweth cow;

Bullock rouseth, buck he browseth merry sing cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well then (thou) singeth cuckoo,

Oh ne’er be silent now.

 I bet the English don’t have such loud cuckoos, and, while I don’t subscribe to that last line, I celebrate the arrival of our cuckoos just the same.

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Balestrand to Oslo

Day 20 Balestrand to Oslo

Now we were on the home stretch, so to speak. The idea was to catch a local ferry from Balestrand to Flåm, go on the famously scenic Flåm railway to Myrdal, change trains there and get to Oslo in the early evening to have a last look at that city. Overnight in Oslo, then a bus to the airport to begin the long flight home.

Myrdal to Oslo is only 220 km, normally about four and a half hours. The whole rail trip should have taken roughly five and a half hours, and thereby hangs this tale.

Local ferries are essential services all along the Norway coast, delivering passengers, post and supplies. There is an extensive road network in Norway, but with all those fjords, mountains and valleys, boat was the only reasonable way to go until the technology became available to engineer so many roads and tunnels.

The weather was glorious and my subconscious produced earworms of the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’ (‘Morning Mood’) as we were chugging along. It seemed somehow appropriate.

Fjord after leaving Balestrand

Norwegians are famed for their love of outdoor sports

Photo by Bruce Moore

We saw very many small, picturesque villages like these along the edge of the fjord …

Typical small coastal village

Summer house; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

With barely 4% of the country having arable land, it’s not surprising that the houses are located very close to the water. Norway is now a rich country (thanks to oil and investing the profits in a socially responsible manner), after being poor for so very long, and one of our Norwegian guides said that every Norwegian family had at least one car, a boat, a city house or apartment, and a summer house. She was only partly joking.

Flåm (population 350) is a strange little touristy village at the head of a fjord. It is yet another place that has a love/hate relationship with tourism, over-run in summer with cruise ships whose passengers don’t take care of the place as much as they should. There was a little bit of time to look around, but I hadn’t done any research into what would be good to see, so just visited the tourist shops in search of strange and interesting things. Seal oil (full of omega-3s), glacier water, whale sausages (hvalpølse; ‘Fjord & Fjellmat’ translates to ‘fjord and mountain food’) and reindeer sausages (?) seemed popular, as well as the usual tat – T-shirts, mugs, ugly troll toys and such.

The train was finally ready to go so we hopped on, dragging our suitcases, to find our allocated seats. Suitcases go in racks at the end of each carriage and the carriages were neat and clean. The Flåm railway trip, said by some to be the most beautiful in the world and certainly the most impressive I’ve been on (I’ve not been on that many), winds its spectacular way along a steep-sided mountain valley for an hour or so. Since it was high tourist season, the train was very crowded.

We passed through lots of tunnels (Norway’s rail system has 696 tunnels and 2,760 bridges, a massive engineering feat making the many small villages more accessable than they were via the early sea routes), obscuring the views of waterfalls bouncing down steep mountainsides to the river in the bottom of the valley. Unfortunately I couldn’t get good shots in the higher reaches as the shadows on the sides of the mountains obscured the sight too much, but the views were splendid.

View from the Flåm railway

One website describes the scene:

Over the course of one hour, the train takes you from sea level at the Aurlandsfjord in Flåm to Myrdal mountain station, situated 867 metres above sea level. Myrdal is also on the Bergen Line, meaning the Flåm Railway connects with trains running between Bergen and Oslo.

From the comfort of a vintage train compartment, you can enjoy the changing scenery of the Flåm Valley. Before ascending into the more impassable sections of the valley, the train runs through agricultural landscapes, the old Flåm village centre and the old church. The sparkling blue river follows the railway for large parts of the trip, and you will pass small farms in locations you’d think no one could live.

The train takes a five-minute photo stop at the Kjosfossen waterfall where you can disembark and go out onto the platform. Watch out for Huldra – a beautiful mythological creature with long hair wearing a red dress!

Hulder acting seductively in a red dress (right); photo by Bruce Moore

Construction of the railway started in 1923 and was completed in 1940. It is said to be one of the greatest engineering feats in Norway. The 20-km long railway line is one of the steepest standard gauge lines in the world, with 80% of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5%. There are no less than 20 tunnels, 18 of which were built by hand. One of the tunnels even takes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain.

As mentioned above, there was a stop – more like 15 minutes – at a thundering waterfall where a strange woman in a flowing red dress danced in the distance on the hillside. I found out later she represented a hulder or huldra, a sort of seductive but dangerous mountain spirit. Some sort of explanation would have helped me appreciate her more as I quite like mythology, but perhaps it was in the Norwegian announcement over the tannoy. The seduction certainly didn’t work on me.

We changed trains at Myrdal for Oslo. Most of the other tourists went back to Flåm and, presumably, to their cruise boats. A few cyclists headed off to parts unknown. The Myrdal-Oslo part of the trip goes over the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, such a contrast to the coastal fjords and forests. I kept seeing many (I suppose) summer houses. In Australia there would be nothing between stations, and the stations would be far apart. I was surprised at all the stops at little stations along the way, mostly to disgorge hikers and cyclists. I wondered where they were all going to, but perhaps they were camping or heading to their summer houses in the seemingly uninhabited landscape. Norwegians famously love to get out into ‘the nature’.

Part-way to Oslo, our train stopped at a station. After an hour and a half, we learned that the track somewhere ahead had ‘buckled’ – the unusual (for Norway) daytime heat had affected the line in such a way that we had to wait for it to cool down to go any further. In compensation, we were given free crispbread and drinks, which turned out to be dinner. We got going but soon stopped for another while at another station – then were loaded onto buses to complete the journey to the Oslo central train station. Lugging our suitcases the 10-minute walk to the hotel at 1 a.m. was not much fun!

Day 21 Oslo to Brisbane

Staggering out of bed early to load up on our last hotel breakfast and lots of coffee, we were soon off to the airport and another ghastly 24-hour plane journey, broken by a couple of hours in Dubai airport. By this time I was glad to get home, longing for a rest and not to live out of a suitcase. It was such a brilliant and varied trip, but Svalbard was the most interesting and different in my opinion. On my first day at home, I wondered why it was getting dark in the evening – then I realised the sun was going down! It was odd that I’d become used to so much light all night in only three weeks. It was a very satisfying journey, and I’d like to go back one day to explore more.

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Ambling in Bergen (part 2)

Unfortunately, the National Museum was closed for a year for refurbishment, so I was disappointed to miss that. But the National Aquarium (Akvariet) was only about 30 minutes’ walk from the hotel and the weather was perfect for it. Bergen is a pleasant city to walk around – small (about 270,000 people) with pretty buildings and parks, and lots of history in evidence.

A pair of European otters (Gizmo and Bella) were doing the ‘cute’ thing – I’m always surprised at how big otters are.

There was a small waddle (yes, that is the collective noun for penguins on land; in the sea it’s a ‘raft’) of the world’s northernmost penguins, gentoos. (The only wild penguin that lives (just) above the equator is the Galapagos penguin.)

There was an ocean sunfish (either taxidermy or model) on the wall. When I was working at the South Australian Museum, I saw one washed up on the beach.

The marine stuff was centred on Arctic waters. I was very pleased to see a live basket star …

It lives only in the freezing regions.

I guess rays are easy to keep.

There was a surprising number of reptiles and amphibians, from all over the world. I took only a few shots of the many animals and did not get names.

The aquarium was quite crowded with families, so it was difficult to get shots without people in them. On the way back, I window-shopped (it was Sunday and the shops were shut – bad luck as I might have found strange and interesting things in them). The Norwegians are very proud of their culture, and the traditional costume, the bunad, is still worn on their national day and other important celebrations. These were in the windows of stores, so are modern takes on the costume. Different regions of the country have slightly different designs.

The rest of the afternoon was spent meandering back to the hotel, looking at the lovely old buildings and pondering my surroundings – so much history!

 

 

Back at the hotel I decided to treat myself to a local beer in the lobby (the world’s northernmost beer? No – that goes to the Longyearbyen brewery) at A$16 a schooner. I was sipping, writing up my notes to the pleasant music, then the receptionist turned on the TV to the World Soccer and half a dozen people appeared to watch it (our rooms didn’t have TV) – time for me to retreat to my room!

The following day we caught a coastal ferry to Balestrand, which I covered here and the day after Sognefjord, which I covered here. After that it was time to catch the ferry to Flåm, then the rail to Oslo, which I’ll cover next time.

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Ambling in Bergen (part 1)

Day 16 To Bergen

We flew south from Tromsø to Bergen. The flight itself is only a couple of hours, but it seems to take all day from leaving a hotel in one city to arriving at the next in another city.

The views from the aircraft window were spectacular – steep mountains covered in snow, glaciers, and glacial lakes with various hues of blue. Apparently the differing colours are caused by the differing amounts of dirt that drop out of the glacier when it melts at the water’s edge. Despite looking pristine from afar, glaciers often have grey patches – fine soil carried along over centuries.

The airline provided a handy Norwegian air sickness bag, with comforting sentiments. (Honestly, we tourists take photos of the weirdest things, just because they are so different from home.)

Jerry’s suitcase, along with about 20 suitcases of the passengers of a huge Viking cruiseliner, didn’t arrive with the flight, but it arrived the next day. I hope the cruiseline passengers from the flight got theirs before they set sail – cruise passengers usually stay only one day in a city, spending the nights on their ship. Our hotel, Scandic Byparken, was in an older building than our previous, very modern hotels, and our rooms were decidedly of a lesser standard, but, hey, variety is the spice of life. It was in a convenient location for the usual walk around town after settling in. I always like to do this to get ‘the lay of the land’, so to speak. Tromsø, being within the Arctic Circle, still had the midnight sun, but in Bergen (outside the Circle) the sun was setting about 11 p.m. and rising about 4 a.m., and the ‘darkness’ was still quite light.

Day 17 (morning) Bergen

Our lovely guide for the morning (I’ve forgotten her name but she was most pleasant to be around and very knowledgeable) walked us through the city around the picturesque Old Quarter (nowadays mostly student rental accommodation) …

Anything dropped into the numerous street recycling bins goes onto the underground pneumatic system. Bergen uses underground waste collection to cover its entire city centre, around 7 sq km and 12,000 households.

Recycling bins

To my surprise, such a system is almost ready to go in Australia.

On the way from the old town to the centre of town, we passed the National Theatre. I couldn’t help wondering if those two birds keeping an eye on us were actually Hugin and Munin, Odin’s all-seeing ravens. But our knowlegeable guide didn’t know (I asked her). They weren’t ravens but you can never be too careful with Norse gods, especially in their own country.

We headed across several pleasant parks looking towards Ulriken, the highest of the seven peaks surrounding the city. There’s an aerial tramway to the top, which a couple from our group went on. The view from the top would have been spectacular.

There are a lot of statues around the town – for example, the Seamen’s Monument in the main square, Torgallmenningen. The four sides illustrate four ages of history in Norway. Unfortunately I didn’t come across any statues with women.

I’d noticed a lot of what looked like beggars on the streets, also in Tromsø. I knew Norway had a splendid welfare system and very little unemployment, and the beggars didn’t look Norwegian so I asked our guide – she said they were the ‘Romani Mafia’ – gypsies sent from outside Norway for six months (the legal limit) to beg. Once their time is up they are replaced by others. They can make a good living from tourists.

We arrived at the quite small retail fish market, where whale ‘steak’ is on sale among other North Sea fish, including the invasive but apparently delicious king crabs. Norway still fishes for minke whales. There is no wholesale fish market presently in Bergen.

Divide by 6 to get Australian dollars

After perusing the harvest of the deep, we headed for nearby Bryggen, a World Heritage site, the first settlement in what was at one stage the capital of Norway. The many big old wooden warehouses have burned down and been rebuilt several times. Bergen was the capital of Norway. From the 11th century, Bryggen was a major trading centre. It was a Sunday afternoon and very crowded with tourists, a bit like a walk in Sydney’s Rocks. The city’s stores were generally shut, so I couldn’t indulge myself in the sport of ‘finding weird and interesting things to look at or buy in foreign countries’. This was probably a good thing as I really don’t need any more. Apparently Bergen can have 200 days of rain a year, but this was not one of them – the weather was perfect for ambling around.

The area also has the oldest building in Bergen, St Mary’s Church, built between 1130 and 1170.

Also in the area is a giant wooden carved stockfish (dried cod) – cod are the mainstay of the fishing industry, now and in the past, for eating and trading.

There were plenty of museums and old buildings in the area, but being on a guided tour means you can’t really diverge to visit them. Our guide took us back to the hotel – we had to avoid various bands as there was a musical festival that weekend, and bands seemed to be practising in practically every park.

After lunch, I decided I’d had enough of plants so didn’t go on the afternoon trip to the Arboretum, but instead walked to the impressive National Aquarium. I’ll write about that next time.

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