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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Tramping around Tromsø (part 2)

Our second tour for the day was hosted by Jørgen, a local guide, who took us on a walking tour. Luckily, Tromsø is fairly small (population 75,000, mostly made up of people in their 20s and 30s) and the historic part of the city is easily accessible by foot from the waterfront where we were staying. In pre-covid times, the city could get two giant cruise ships a day in summer, with up to 4,000 passengers each, so it got overwhelmed at times, with many buses clogging the streets and parking difficult at popular tourist sights. I described the crowded circumstances in Tromsø in an email to Andrew, who responded that I was ‘scavenging for food in the northern wastes, in a city overrun by short-stay raiders from a never-ending stream of longships’. Karma, eh, Vikings?

Jørgen ran through some historical and current facts about the town, including that Tromsø folks speak a slightly different dialect to the standard Oslo dialect (bokmål), and apparently northern Norwegians are seen a bit as ‘country hicks’ by southerners. Housing there is the most expensive in Norway except for a few Oslo suburbs (I wonder if Longyearbyen was included in this survey, as building there is so restricted due to permafrost issues and avalanche danger).

We started off at the statue of Roald Amundsen, perhaps the greatest polar explorer and a celebrated hero in the city although he was not born in Tromsø, but lived his later years there.

Walking us through the old town (the multistorey wooden barns of the old commerce days), Jørgen took us to the Polar Museum (Polarmuseet), dedicated to the whaling, sealing and trapping days. I loved the colours and shapes of the old wooden buildings. Luckily there are no termites in Norway.

Like many museums in Norway, it was small but densely packed with exhibits and information. The labels are in Norwegian and English.

Trapping life was hard, especially in the winter months of all-day darkness and extreme cold and storms. Trappers caught whatever they could eat and/or sell for meat or fur – reindeer, arctic foxes, polar bears, walruses, birds and seals.

It was not easy killing such large and dangerous animals as polar bears and walruses. To make it easier, a self-firing trap was used on polar bears. The bait was a piece of blubber and when the bear stuck its head inside to get it, it shot itself with the sawn-off shotgun or rifle inside. Arctic foxes were crushed to death by stones placed on top of trapdoors which the fox entered from underneath. There was no room for sentimentality in that life.

Seals were often caught by harpoon and kayak, like the one below.

Whaling ships had medicine chests like the one below.

Below is a journal from a 1962 expedition – not so historical but a delightful artefact nonetheless.

Leaving Polarmuseet, we walked past the oldest house in Tromsø, built as a customs house in 1789.

Next we were herded onto a large bus (which seemed a bit of overkill for the 14 of us) and driven over the bridge to the mainland (Tromsø is partly on an island, partly on the adjacent shore) to the Arctic ‘cathedral’, a rather modern piece of architecture (built in 1965) which our guide was at pains to point out is not officially a cathedral but merely the parish church. The traffic was ridiculously busy and we were lucky to find a park, but I guess tourist bus drivers are used to that in high season. I rather felt like a sheep being herded around.

The ‘cathedral’ stands out from afar.

I was glad to get off the bus and back to the hotel and, after a breather, Janet, Bruce and I decided we had enough energy to walk to Polaria, a polar-themed aquarium a couple of kilometres from the hotel. I always like to catch up with museums and aquariums wherever I go, having started my career in the South Australian Museum (the marine invertebrates section, then ichthyology) and now volunteering in the local historical society one. I was impressed with the exhibits at Polaria – live local fish and bearded seals, and a cinema showing films on the polar regions. Fishing is a huge industry in Norway, including (fewer and fewer) whales. The entrance had a whale sculpture of recycyled materials.

I appreciated that some of the information was a bit more technical than the usual dumbed-down stuff. I find I always want more than is provided for the kiddies or the general public, like this piece on how bearded seals feed.

And who can resist a bit of retail therapy in the aquarium shop? (Don’t worry, I only bought a book on marine invertebrates in the fjords. I managed to find one in English.)

On the way back to the hotel, we even managed to get in a bit of urban bird-watching: a (I think) western jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) …

… and a gull chick of some description.

Then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before travelling onwards to Bergen the next day.

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Tramping around Tromsø (part 1)

Day 14 Tromsø arrival

I skimmed over the days in Tromsø, so I want to go back and revisit them.

On the ship at dock in Longyearbyen, we were up for a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, having got our suitcases ready at 6 a.m. for disembarking. At least we weren’t in the group that had to disembark (with their suitcases) by zodiac about 1 a.m. because they had early flights to catch. The rest of us hung about in Longyearbyen – it was rather cold and a bit rainy so not condusive to long walks – and caught up with our emails (there had been no internet service on the ship) or did some last-minute shopping, then a bus took us to the airport for the 90 minute flight to Tromsø. The Arctic circle officially starts at 66°33′N so, as Tromsø is at 69°65′N, we were still within it.

It took positively aaages to get through the passport-stamping line after getting off the plane from Longyearben. There were only two officials doing everything by hand. This was in stark contrast to other airports where everything was done electronically and speedily. It didn’t help that we Aussies are not part of the Shengen agreement so didn’t have the fast-through option.

The waiting bus then took us to our very swish hotel (Clarion @ The Edge) at the waterfront and handily witihin a short walk to the centre of town.

Now we were back to a group of 14 Aussie ‘gardeners’ rather than an international group of 80-ish wildlife enthusiasts. While the others went for a pizza, I went for a stroll around the town – I’d rather use such time being what the French call a flâneur, especially since the sun was virtually up all night and the shops didn’t close till late. The town was quite touristy, as is to be expected. There were souvenir shops selling more or less the same ‘cute’ (ugly) trolls, some Sami stuff (the indigenous people from the north, a few of whom are still reindeer herders), and a lot of knives with reindeer-antler handles. Wooden spoons also seemed to be hot sellers – I guess they are light and easy to slip into the suitcase for presents. And ‘Viking helmets’ with horns – urgh, Hollywood has a lot to answer for. The helmets of the ancient Vikings definitely did not have horns.

I find restaurant  and cafe menus interesting for what they can tell you about local eating habits – the flavour of the place, so to speak. Since whale is sustainably fished in Norway, one would expect it on a menu. I wasn’t disappointed. Having eaten whale in Japan – I wouldn’t dare insult my hosts by refusing to eat it as they had bought it especially for me – and not being impressed, I wasn’t going to try it here. Divide by 6 to get the Aussie dollar equivalent at the time.

By the way, the Egyptian foul (below) was not foul – it is the legitimate name for a dish with fava beans.

Day 15 Tromsø botanic garden

Next morning, with overcast skies, we were taken by bus to the Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden, the most northerly botanic garden in the world. This amusing ‘Fasten your seatbelt’ sign was in the bus. My Norwegian is limited to ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ so it wasn’t until I looked up the relevant website that I found out what it was all about, and also that the fine for not wearing a seatbelt was then 1500 kroner (about A$250).

Here’s an explanation from the Nettbuss website:

                 Without a belt, you will be the elephant in the bus

“Few know how dangerous it is that the others on the bus do not wear a seat belt. What we often see in accidents is that passengers are thrown around in or out of the bus. In this way, passengers can do great damage to both themselves and each other,” says Jon Molnes in the Norwegian Public Roads Administration.

Take the test – check how heavy you get in speed here

You enter your weight, and find out which animal you will be at 80 km/h. While your child may become a moose, you may even end up as a much larger animal.

“Few people want an ox on their neck. We want to make passengers more aware that they not only fasten their seat belts for their own part, but also for those they travel with. Fortunately, there are few accidents with buses, but the potential for damage is great if something should happen,” says Molnes.

The gardens are neatly divided into sections, displaying alpine and Arctic plants from mountainous regions all over the world. Each plant has a label. I wonder how they survive in winter – my relative who lives in Oslo has to replant her garden every year after the winter snows have killed everything off.

Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden

Being spring, many were flowering.

As well as areas covering families of plants, they had plantings of mixed plants under the headings such as ‘fragrant plants’, ‘aphrodisiacs’, ‘native traditional plants’ and, my favourite, ‘witchcraft plants’. I just love the Norwegian word for the last: trolldomsplanter.

Naturally, with Mark on the case, we just had to see some orchids.

I’m not a botanist as such, but I really enjoyed these plantings. After lunch, we were due to go on a walking tour of the city, which I’ll cover next time.

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Slartibartfast’s finest work (part 2)

Glaciers and fjords in ‘Fairyland’

After the morning clouds cleared, we enjoyed perfect summer weather on the ferry from Balestrand to the village of Mundal (also known as Fjaerland) on the Sognefjord. (It is worth clicking on the links as there are some wonderful photographs of these areas.) The fjord and mountains were postcard perfect.


This perky little bird dropped in on the ferry – a white wagtail (Motacilla alba). (Thanks, Joan, for the ID.)

The ferry dropped us off at Mundal to catch a bus to the World Heritage area. From Mundal (to which we would return later), the bus drove through extensive farmland at the base of the mountains. Like at home, grass is gathered for winter feeding of animals while the animals themselves are often up the mountains feeding on summer forage. Less than 3% of Norway’s land is arable – no wonder the ancient Vikings had a habit of going away travelling to find places to settle and grow food, as well as to raid and for trading purposes.


Farmland near the museum

The bus took us first to Norsk Bremuseum (the Norwegian Glacier Museum), small but well appointed. Can you tell it’s architect designed?

Norwegian Glacier Museum

The 15-minute panoramic video of Jostedalsbreen (‘breen’ is the Norwegian word for ‘glacier’) really gave me a feeling of being there, minus the freezing temperatures and extreme exertion, of course!

The museum is deserving of the awards it has won. Exhibitions inside include a mammoth display with actual tusk …

Mammoth display inside Glacier Museum

… a detailed display with a replica of Ötzi, the ‘iceman’, who died about 3300 years ago. The actual mummy is in a museum in Italy …

There were several interactives helping to explain the properties of ice in the glacier, and even a replica of an ice cave that you could walk through, complete with sounds of ice dripping and the groaning and clicking noises of a glacier as it moves. Atmospheric!

Outside were three statues of life-sized mammoths. More and more mammoth bones are being found as the permafrost in which they lie melts.

Life-size statues of a nuclear family of mammoths outside the Norwegian Glacier Museum

We were guided to two glaciers, steep, mighty and melting: Boyabreen and Jostedalsbreen. Note the handy warning signs. Mark and Jerry were more interested in the orchids they found than the ice, which is understandable since Mark is an expert in orchids and researches them at CSIRO.



After giving us plenty of time to explore, the bus delivered us back to Mundal where we could meander for a couple of hours before the ferry came to pick us up. Mundal is a ‘book town’ and most of the old buildings are converted to secondhand bookstores. Australia has one book town – Clunes in Victoria.

Jen Campbell, in The Bookshop Book, says:

Fjærland translates as ‘spring land,’ and it’s definitely in the spring that the town comes to life. Situated near Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in mainland Europe, … during the winter, with up to six feet of snow and temperatures as low as -20C, its bookshops become what the locals call deep-frozen. The BookTown is officially closed then, but those who live there wrap up warm and zoom around on kick-sleds, shipping in books and piling them up ready for the warmer weather. …

Fjærland became a book town in 1995 … and has a mere three miles’ worth of bookshelves. … The curation of the place is what makes it special, the idea being to preserve old structures, so you can find bookshops in abandoned buildings everywhere, from ferry waiting-rooms to stables, from banks to grocery shops, and even cowsheds and pigpens.


I looked through the English language part of the bookshops – one building only – and  had a pleasant conversation with the Norwegian lass behind the counter (a Harry Potter fan; I hope I turned her on to Terry Pratchett) who wanted to be an editor and translator – naturally I encouraged her. It is impressive how Norwegians can flip instantly between several languages, as long as you give them a cue by saying something in, say, English first. Being a monolinguist (with a smattering of others that don’t really count), I felt quite inferior in that respect.

After plenty of time for exploring and afternoon tea (not necessarily in that order), we were off again on the ferry back to Balestrand.

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Slartibartfast’s finest work (part 1)

Douglas Adams fans will recall that, in his sci-fi comedy novel ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, Slartibartfast, designer of planets, won an award for the Norway fjords, and I have to agree – they are spectacular. The fjords (spelt ‘fiords’ in New Zealand) nearest to home are those in the south-west of the South Island of Aotearoa (called, unsurprisingly, ‘Fiordland‘) – I’ve only been to Milford Sound but assume the other NZ West Coast fiords are just as impressive.

While Svalbard’s fjords are textbook examples of geology – the shapes are formed by glaciers moving down and scouring out valleys over thousands of years –  they look somewhat bleak, with steep peaks of grey or black/brown stone, rubble or rocks at the bottom that have been dragged down by glaciers over thousands of years, and no tall trees, just short shrubs (e.g. the polar willow, Salix polaris, grows very slowly in the tundra to 2-9 cm [1-3.5 inches] high). The fjords are very atmospheric all the same. In contrast, the mainland fjords have lots of forests and in the summer are very colourful – steep sides, long waterfalls, still waters reflecting blue skies, and picturesque small villages with colourful houses. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving the tundra of Svalbard, we flew to Tromsø, then to Bergen, for a couple of days at each. Both are pleasant towns – Bergen is especially charming – with lots of historic buildings, but very crowded in the summer holiday season (both suffer from the influx of many huge cruise ships each carrying up to 4,000 tourists; good for the economy but it must be a relief when the cruiseship season stops). Two days does not allow even skimming the surface of such places, but it was better than nothing, especially with walks accompanied by excellent professional guides who gave us potted histories. I’d love to go back and spend more time exploring them, but not in summer high season even though that is the best weather. Bergen is the wettest place in Norway, but we were lucky to have exceptionally fine weather throughout our trip.

From Bergen, we took the scenic route south, via the coastal ferry, to Balestrand, which is covered nicely on this blog. The ferry stops at various tiny villages along the way to drop off post and supplies. Our billet, the Kviknes Hotel, has two sections: one with interesting architecure, antique furniture and large framed paintings, finished in 1913, and a more boring one finished in the 1960s – guess where we were, alas. The decor in the old section was much more interesting than that in the modern hotels we’d been in so far – one of those places with a labyrinth of rooms that are fun to explore. The hotel is very popular and we shared the dining room with numerous other tourist parties. I’m usually an independent traveller with lots of flexibility so it took a bit of getting used to the crowds being ushered around.

We’d arrived early enough in the day to have a look around. There were a couple of cafes and a small aquarium but I didn’t go in, despite the advertised delights of Troll Soup.

Divide by 6 to get the equivalent Australian dollars at the time.

The town is basically a waystation for travel up and down the coast and the Sognefjord (the longest and deepest fjord in Norway), and for hiking in the nearby mountains (Norwegians are typically very outdoorsy people).

I went out on my own for a walk, having heard there was a Viking grave nearby. Being an archaeology enthusiast, I was keen to see my first real Viking site.

Of the five original mounds, three have been removed and the others taken down and restored. The remnants of a boat, two skeletons, jewellery and several weapons were removed for study in the 1820s. Fortunately the information boards have an English translation. The statue on one of the mounds bears no resemblance to the sketch on the board, however.

On the way back to the town, I popped into a pretty stave-style church, St Olaf’s. It isn’t one of the original stave churches (read about them here), but was built in 1897 with the wishes of an Englishwoman living in Balestrand. It’s Anglican and still in use.

After a bit more exploring around town, and a companionable dinner, we were all looking forward to the trip along Sognefjord next day.

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A song of ice and flowers

(Despite the title of this piece, which seemed appropriate, I’ve not watched ‘Game of Thrones’ – I avoid violent TV, books and films. Andrew likes to point out that I enjoy ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Xena Warrior Princess’, which are both pretty violent but, hey, nobody’s perfect).

As we know, plants need air, light, warmth, water and nutrients to survive and reproduce. So what happens in a place where there are three months a year of total darkness, the ground is either frozen or covered with ice and snow, and the average winter temperature is −20ºC (−6ºF) (coldest recorded is −49.2°C (−56.6°F)), sometimes with massive snowstorms and gale force winds? Where snow blocks out most light, glaciers have either scraped surfaces clean or dumped poor soil that took thousands of years to arrive where plants could use it, and the soil is frozen most of the year anyway?

What’s a plant to do? Answer: Give up and die, or adapt and wait for the growing season, then go full steam ahead into growth and reproduction mode.

There are no tall trees in Svalbard and the plants that are there hug the ground, barely rising above the top of one’s toe in a walking boot. There are two willow species, which we might normally think of as big trees, but the polar and snow willows (Salix species; photos below) are only a few centimetres high although they may be a couple of hundred years old.

The permafrost thaws 50-150 cm each summer, providing a shallow region for root growth, before freezing again. The cold, lack of light and poor soil make everything grow very slowly. In summer when the snows and glaciers melt, average temperatures get up to 7°C with 24-hour sunlight. The highest temperature ever recorded was 21.3°C (70.3°F), coldest recorded was −49.2°C (−56.6°F) so there is quite a range for a plant to cope with. When I was there (June/July), the temperature was pretty much 2°C all day and night. Then the reindeer browse, trying to fatten themselves up to feed their young (if they are lactating females) and for the winter where they survive by pawing snow and ice off the underlying plants. Hundreds of geese also browse on the plants and feed their young up for the long flights south as winter approaches.

On the western side of the archipelago, the warm water current allows the climate to be less severe (sub-polar). The northern part is an Arctic desert ecoregion.

Figures vary, but according to the Norwegian Polar Institute:

As of 2015, about 178 vascular plants, 380-390 moss species, 708 lichen species and more than 750 species of fungi have been documented in Svalbard.

… Tussocks and mat-forming growth forms, hairs, umbrella-shaped flowers, elastic roots, clonal dispersal (by which the plant produces stolons or rhizomes from which genetically identical new plants develop) and nodes are commonly observed and are adaptations to an Arctic life. Most species are also perennial. This is because Arctic plants grow very slowly, and one season is often not sufficient to accumulate resources for flowering and seed production. 

We even saw a cyanobacterium and algae (see photos below). Under the scree slopes where some bird species nest in colonies of thousands, and so lots of guano has been dropped, the vegetation is quite green and lush. The flowers were a very pretty sight against the background of stones and brown soil.

On our daily trips to land, we were divided into groups with a guide (with polar-bear-scaring rifle) each. There was initially a photographers’ group, a ‘fast walkers’ group and a group for everyone else. This last group went too fast to really get a good look at plants, and we weren’t allowed to dawdle for fear of bears, so I had a quiet word with one of the guides … Jerry Coleby-Williams … TV personality … well-known in Australia … our group interested in plants so couldn’t keep up with the others …. I might have beefed it up a bit but it had the desired effect. Next day, a special ‘plant group’ was announced, and we were given our very own guide-with-rifle. Luckily, the excellent ship’s library stretched to plants, and one of the guides had a botanical field guide, so we were set.

I will briefly mention fungi, which strictly are not plants, but which everywhere support the life of plants underground. We didn’t see any mushrooms as such, but there are quite a number (click here for some photos):

A large number of mushroom species grow in Svalbard. Most are small, some are poisonous, while others are edible and tasty. Fungi have most of their biomass under ground, invisible for man, and only produce small fruiting bodies aboveground in autumn, in order to reproduce. Their activity makes nutrients available for plant roots. The vegetation in Svalbard would be really scarce without fungi and their ability to mediate nutrition to the plants. Fungi are also an important food item for reindeer and various invertebrates.

Below are Jerry’s photos and IDs for what we saw. Thanks to Jerry for permission to use his photos. Thanks also to Bruce Moore for his photo of Jerry botanising.

Jerry botanising; photo by Bruce Moore


Joy and Ann botanising in Longyearbyen town, Spitsbergen

Alpine bistort, Persicaria vivipara, syn. Polygonum, Bistorta (Polygonaceae)

Alpine draba, Draba alpina

Alpine saxifrage, Micranthes nivalis

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuzeri subsp. arcticum (in Longyearbyen town)

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea


Black fleabane, Erigeron humilis

Cardamine pratensis subsp. angustifolia

Carex maritima

Cassiope tetragona

Common moss, Funaria hygrometrica

Cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuchzeri subsp. arcticum

Desiccated Arctic liverwort, Marchantiaceae, in Lilliehookbreen

Draba alpina

Draba glabella (some Arctic mouse ear)

Draba lactea (centre) – polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Draba oxycarpa

Draba pauciflora

Edible dulce, Palmaria palmata


Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Flattened acid kelp, Desmarestia ligulata

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp., Saxifraga caespitosa, moss

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp.

Fringed sandwort, Arenaria pseudofrigida

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Greenland scurvy grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Greenland scury-grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Hairy lousewort, Pedicularis hirsuta

Koenigia islandica, Polygonaceae, germinating in moss

Koenigia islandica

Lapland willow grass, Draba lactea with common whitlow grass, D. alpina

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Map lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum

Marine red alga, seaweed, Phycodrys rubens

Micranthes tenuis

Moss campion, Silene acaulis

Mosses with hair cap moss, Polytrichum commune (largest)

Mountain avens, Dryas octopetala

Mountain sorrel, Oxyria digyna

Northern golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium tetrandrum

Nostoc (a cyanobacterium)

Oarweed, Laminaria digitata

Pale whitlow grass, Draba oxycarpa

Pedicularis dasyantha

Pixie cups lichen, Cladonia asahinae – Arctic through Americas to Antarctic

Polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Polar foxtail grass, Alopecurus ovatus, in Kongsfjordan

Polar willow, Salix polaris, in Lilliehookbreen

Polar willow, Salix polaris

Proto insectivorous – Stylidium debile

Pygmy buttercup, Ranunculus pygmaeus


Ranunculus pygmaeus

Rockweed alga, Fucus distichus

Rock tripe, Umbilicaria sp.

Ribbon kelp, Alaria marginata

Reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangifera

Rockweed algae, Fucus distichus

Saxifraga caespitosa

Sphagnum arcticum

Snow willow, Salix reticulata

Silene acaulis with rust





Short-leaved sedge, Carex fuliginosa subsp. misandra

Saxifraga with rust


Woolly lousewort, Pedicularis dasyantha

Witch’s hair alga

Svalbard poppy, Papaver dahlianum

Sunburst lichen, Xanthoria sp.

Sulphur buttercup, Ranunculus sulphureus

Parallel sedge, Carex parallella


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The sound of breath freezing

The sound of breath freezing is very much outside my experience. I’ve lived most of my life on the driest continent on Earth and some parts of it are very hot, so the concept intrigues me.  I first read about it in one of the many books I’ve been devouring on the polar regions. For the breath to freeze, the air temperature has to be much lower than I’ve experienced (which was pretty much 2ºC all day and ‘night’ in the 24-hour-light Arctic summer, and minus a couple of degrees in rare frosts at home). The lowest temperature recorded in Australia (not counting our bit of Antarctica) was -23C (-9.4F) in the Snowy Mountains in 1974.

Apparently the indigenous people of Eastern Siberia have the lovely phrase, ‘the whisper of the stars‘.

When the temperature drops below the mid-minus 50s Celsius, a soft whooshing sound can sometimes be heard, like rice or grain being poured. This noise is caused by the moisture in one’s own exhaled breath turning to ice crystals in the cold dry air.

The Weather Doctor, reporting on temperatures of -64C (-83F) in Canada, gives another description:

The freezing of one’s breath produced a continuous hissing sound similar to dry blowing snow, and a tinkle when the ice crystals hit the ground.

I cannot imagine what -50C would be like, let alone -64C, but there are plenty of people who choose to live in that world.

Ice cliff at the edge of a glacier, Svalbard. It will calve off one day with an almighty boom and wave.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Seeing so much ice and so many glaciers in Svalbard was hard to get my head around – I kept pinching myself to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. Sipping drinks in the comfortable bar of the ship, I could hear the popping of the ice cubes in the drink, taken from small floating chunks of ice  – that released air was very likely to be thousands of years old.

Of course, looking at photos is nothing like actually being there – you’re missing on out on the feel of very cold air in your nose and on your skin, the sounds (the screaming birds, the gentle hum and vibration of the ship and the waves lapping against the bow if we were moving, and the marvellous, deep silence underneath all that), movement, peripheral sights, smells (oh, how clean that air smelt!) – but the beauty cried out to be captured.

Before the trip, I thought of glaciers as pristine, white and glowing, but the reality can be very different.

The different colours indicate the contents of the ice. The brown is dirt that has been transported down with the glacier, scraped off the rock it has scoured over thousands of years. Clear ice has been compressed over thousand of years, squeezing out any air bubbles that would reflect light. White ice is the result of a top layer of snow, reflecting all colours of light so that we see white. Different shades of blue show the amount of impurities inside. Green indicates algal growth.

Close-up of Svalberg iceberg; photo by MG

As the ice melts, unique artistic forms emerge.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There’s a bunch of descriptive words in English for different forms of ice. Here’s how Jill Fredston puts it in her book Rowing to Latitude: Journeys along the Arctic’s Edge:

Saltwater begins to freeze at just over 28ºF [-2ºC]. It progresses from a stew of individual crystals to thicker slush, to a bendable layer that, when it thickens and whitens, is called first-year ice. Any ice that survives a summer of melt, in the process becoming bluer, denser, and less salty, is known as multiyear ice. Typically, this ice thickens to ten or twelve feet. More generally, any sea ice not fixed to the land is termed pack ice.  … Pieces of pack ice, called pans or floes, move in response to wind … In contrast, glacier icebergs … are driven primarily by current.

Bergy bits are floaters smaller than icebergs, and growlers are smaller than bergy bits. The terms go on and on.

Brash ice (small pieces broken down from larger chunks) on the left. Note the clean cut-off line on the right, probably because the sea temperature is higher there.

The various forms of sea ice are important for a number of animals. Seals haul out on it to rest and warm up between feeds, and polar bears rely on them (mainly ringed seals) for food. After hibernation in winter, bear continually roam the ice in search of whatever they can find – whale carcasses, sea birds, seals hauling out, people …

The questing bear is the cream bit in the middle.

This bear went after a bearded seal, but ringed seals are much easier to catch.

Bearded seal hauled out on ice

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

I’ve been reading up on ice, the properties of ice, its nature and its relationship to living things. It’s been studied extensively for several hundred years by both explorers or scientists, as well as thousands of years by indigenous people who must know it intimately to survive. I won’t bore you with stuff you can easily look up but I’ve been struck by one thing (well, many things, but this intrigued me).

It was once thought that not much lived under the ice (except fish and the things that ate them and that they ate), but that turns out to be very wrong. As divers and ROVs go down, they are finding more and more strange and wonderful creatures, such as shown here in Antarctica.

Not only do algae live on the undersurface of ice, but also small patches of bottom life. Barry Lopez tells how this can happen in his wonderful sequel to his wonderful Arctic Dreams,  called Horizon:

… in some spots a weak bottom current might eddy around a cluster of benthic creatures, rocks, and bottom sediments and come to a complete halt in some crevice or notch. Here, a few molecules of seawater might freeze. Over time this initially smaller platelet of frozen freshwater might expand (as seawater crystallizes into platelets, it squeezes out the sea salts that keep seawater from freezing at 32ºF), creating a growing matrix of freshwater ice crystals. (The specific gravity of freshwater allows crystals of it to float in seawater.) At some point the expanding mass of freshwater ice becomes large enough to exert an upward force sufficient to uproot a section of the bottom. This scrap of the benthic community continue to float upward until it lodges on the underside of the sea ice cover.

One day I almost swam straight into a dark basalt cobble floating in the water column in front of me. I assumed it was encased in freshwater ice, but I could find no angle of observation that made this apparent. Had I not learned what can happen in these very cold waters, I would have had to conclude that here in Antarctica, dens rocks float.

We have so very much to learn.

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Not your average Christmas reindeer

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) are endemic to Svalbard and are the smallest subspecies of reindeer – about half the weight of other reindeers. They sure do look small with their short legs and pot bellies.

You polar bear? No? That’s all right then. (Svalbard reindeer; photo by Bruce Moore)

We saw several small family groups feeding on the short vegetation in the tundra (actually, there’s no other sort). The closer ones weren’t at all afraid and, after looking at us, put their heads down to feed again. They must eat as much as possible during the short summer, stockpiling fat to see them through the winter. Their strong hooves scrape snow off buried vegetation, but if ice forms over it they can find it difficult to break through. Starvation is the main threat since polar bears prefer to eat ringed seals, but since polar bears eat pretty much what they can catch, eating of reindeer is known to happen.

The reindeers feed on all types of vegetation, generally in small herds

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Back in the day, they, like so many other animals, were overhunted and practically extinct by 1925, but with protection numbers have increased. The current total population size is not known, but estimated by the Norwegian Polar Institute to be 400-1,200 over  the period 1979 to 2013 in the valley that runs past Longyearbyen, the main city. (To clarify, this means annual surveys were done and the numbers found varied year by year, the minimum being 400 and the maximum 1,200. There will be many more in the whole archipelago. The archipelago is difficult to survey and the Russian areas aren’t always surveyed either. Breeding depends on the harshness or otherwise of the seasons, which vary hugely in the Arctic year by year.) A small number are still shot (with permits) each year, providing some Longyearbyen restaurants with game and some hunters with income.

Bones take a long time to break down in the Arctic cold

My foot gives scale

Expected lifespan is about 10 years. Males grow their antlers from April to July (Northern Hemisphere spring and summer), losing them at the beginning of winter after the mating season. But females grow their antlers beginning in June and keep them for a year, including over the winter.  So the Santa’s reindeers have got to be females. Hey Rudolph, is some re-naming required?

Posted in Animals on land, Travels | Tagged , , | 4 Comments