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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More Arctic avians

I met fellow-Aussies Bruce and Linda on the Arctic trip, and Bruce has kindly allowed me to post some of his great shots. He has a camera with a big lens (allowing for nice close-ups) and the knowledge to use it, unlike me and my little point-and-shoot (yes, I know, RTFM). (All photos copyright by Bruce Moore – thanks, Bruce!)

Atlantic puffins

Puffins resting on steep rock ledges

One of three puffin species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has been estimated to have 10,000 breeding pairs in the islands of Svalbard. I first saw this bird on the way to the Orkneys, north of Scotland. They nest sociably in crevices or in the spaces under convenient boulders in the Arctic where there is little soil depth (otherwise they would burrow into the ground). The chicks stay hidden and are fed fish, crustaceans and worms accumulated by the diving adults.

Glaucus gulls

Glaucus gull and chicks

Glaucus gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are omnivorous, eating molluscs, the eggs and chicks of other seabirds. They are the second-largest gulls in the world.

Black-legged kittiwakes

Kittiwakes like to hang out on icebergs

Rissa tridactyla is a colonial nester, even on glacier edges or snowbanks if there are no ice-free ledges. They build nests on very steep slopes as protection from Arctic foxes, which steal their eggs and chicks. They generally forage far out to sea, following trawlers, collecting shrimps, marine snails and terrestrial invertebrates and plants, seeds and grasses.


Common eiders

Male eider flying over a glaucus gull

Common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are divers – the males black-and white and the females brown. They nest on ice-free islands, pulling down from their own breasts to line the nest. They eat crustaceans and molluscs.


Brünnich’s guillemots

Brunnich’s guillemots crowd together on rocky cliffs

There are a few large breeding colonies of Uria lomvia on exposed cliffs, each containing perhaps over a million birds. These are the birds you might have seen on a David Attenborough program – the chicks launch themselves (with their father) from the high cliffs even though they are unable to fly. If the chick hits the ground, it struggles through the scree towards the sea, but may be taken by Arctic foxes or great skuas. If it hits or makes it to the water, it and its father will swim south to warmer climes. The father is also flightless at this time as he is moulting.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle goose

Branta leucopsis breeds exclusively in the Arctic on low-lying islands and sea-cliff edges. They graze on vegetation. This is the bird that was thought, in medieval times, to come from a barnacle. It was thus classified as a sea animal, so that it could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays (when meat was not allowed).

Northern fulmars

Northern fulmar

Svalbard has the ‘blue’ form of Fulmarus glacialis – the other form has more white. They happily follow ships in case any offerings get thrown over the side. They are not great on land but are strong fliers –  wingspan is over a metre – and they have been known to live around 30 years.


Arctic terns

Arctic tern

Sterna paradisaea migrates between the north and south pole areas, spending the summer months at each pole in turn. They travel 90,000 km every year for about 30 years – the biggest bird migration known. They vigorously defend their nests so expect to be dive-bombed if you go near one – but you wouldn’t, would you?


Great skuas

Great skua

Great skuas (Stercorarius skua) aggressively attack other birds on the wing, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which the skuas snatch for themselves. Like terns, they will aggressively defend their nest from intruders, whether human or fox or polar bear.

Little auks

Little auk

These little cuties (Alle alle) are estimated to have over 10 million breeding pairs in Svalbard. The noise and great swirling flight they create in their massive breeding colonies when an Arctic fox is about has to be seen to be believed. They are thought to be the world’s most numerous seabird. The breeding season coincides with the seasonal peak of plankton and small fish, taken at night, mostly fairly close to the colony.



Purple sandpipers

Pruple sandpipers gleaning for food

I’m not sure why Calidris maritima are ‘purple’, but they acted as any wader does, rummaging for invertebrates, insects, buds and seeds along the shoreline.

Black guillemots

Black guillemot, with the distinctive red legs

Cepphus grylle is a diver, going down about nine metres to get fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The breeding colonies are minute compared to some other birds – a few birds, or a few dozen, in scree or on flat ground.



Snow buntings

The charming snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis is the only breeding songbird in Svalbard. It’s about the size of a sparrow and hunts for seeds and insects. 




Arctic avians

I used to be more of an avian adventurer, but I don’t generally do the birding thing much anymore. Despite this, the Arctic trip added a dozen or so birds to my life list (if I were to have such a thing – but of course I do!).

The final bird list on the trip was as follows (the column headings, which can’t be seen, are dates). I didn’t see all of them,  but I’m posting pictures of those I did (all photos are my own unless mentioned in the captions). I’m not concentrating on the birds as such – after all, you can easily find much better shots than mine on the interwebs – but rather on the combination of the birds and the environment they scratch a living out of.

End-of-trip bird list


Birds can’t survive the Arctic winter, so migrate back and forth. The Arctic summer brings massive amounts of plankton and other underwater animals and plants, due to upwelling from ocean currents. The whole biological system relies on the summer largesse of the bottom rung of the food web.

The poster on the ship’s wall helped with ID, as did the excellent library.

Svalbard birds poster

  • The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), possibly the world’s greatest migrator, flying every year between the Arctic and Antarctica over a lifetime of 15-30 years

Arctic tern; not my photo, not sure who photographed it

  • Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Pair of pink-footed geese in Longyearbyen


  • Common eider (Somateria mollissima; in the second photo, male on the far right) – yes, the ones whose bum feathers make those cosy ‘eiderdowns’ for your bed.

Eider female sitting on eggs in Longyearbyen

Flock of common eiders on a shingle beach in Svalbard; male far right

Steep slopes give eiders a certain amount of protection from predators – at least they can see a long way

  • Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) – note the surroundings in which they are feeding. This is typical of Longyearbyen and most of the Svalbard peninsula, except that Longyearbyen has lots of mine tailings and industrial structures from the old mining days. The permafrost is just below the surface and the ground unfreezes in summer to only a metre or so, supplying just enough meltwater for tiny plants to unfreeze and commence their summer lives. These are the geese that medieval folks thought came from barnacles.

Barnacle geese in Longyearbyen

  • Glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus), a large gull that scavenges pretty much anything

    Glaucus gull

Glaucus gulls resting on floating ice

  • Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), breeds in colonies on cliff ledges; 130,000 breeding pairs have been estimated

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown but is one of our party

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown


  • Brünnich’s guillemot – these birds nest in their hundreds of thousand on sheer cliffs to avoid predation by Arctic foxes and polar bears, which will eat the birds’ eggs and young if they can get at them.

    Brunnich’s guillemot on cliff ledge

  • Long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) – these birds attack other birds that have caught their own meals, causing them to drop the food so that the skuas can make off with it.

    Long-tailed skua





Northern fulmar; photographer was one of our party

Purple sandpiper

  • Little auk (Alle alle), another bird that nests in thousands on cliffs

    Little auks; photo by Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons





Back on the Norwegian mainland, I saw:

  • Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) at Balestrand, the same species we get in Australia
  • Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – an urban dweller, this one in Tromso

    Hooded crow

    All in all, a satisfying set of additions to the personal bird list.

Arctic plants, puffins and polar bears

I follow Jerry Coleby-Williams on Facebook, mainly because he lives in the same climate as me and gives out useful food-growing tips. (He is probably best known as a presenter on ABC TV’s ‘Gardening Australia’.) Jerry takes people on overseas trips to see plants and gardens (e.g. so far to New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.) Last year he advertised a trip to the Arctic. I hadn’t ever considered going there, but the itinerary ticked a lot of boxes for me: a 10-day wildlife cruise around Svalbard (aka Spitzbergen) and visits to other cities in Norway – Oslo, Tromso, Bergen and Balestrand, from which we’d do a tour of the World Heritage areas of the fjords and glaciers, and finally get the famous Flam railway (said to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world) back to Oslo.

I’d also get a chance to catch up with Andrew’s Aunty Rosemary, whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years, and who has lived in Oslo for 30 years with her Norwegian partner.

At Oslo airport I hooked up with most of the 14 members of the tour – this was the start of fun and games as two tour companies had been involved in bookings, and itineraries and instructions varied slightly between members. But we had all been independent travellers and were able to work out the kinks as a team.

The gardening group; photo by guide

We were bussed to our hotel to recover from our various journeys (mine a 14 hour flight to Dubai, 3 hours in Dubai airport, then 7 hours to Oslo). My roommate, Janet, arrived later from London.

Next morning, the hotel breakfast room had an interesting sign, so I felt OK about scavenging a picnic lunch from there. (By the way, Europeans use a comma where we would use a decimal point.) (I took many more photos than the ones below, but if you google-image the names of places you are interested in, you’ll see more.)


I decided to skip the Oslo city guided tour the first morning in favour of seeing Aunty Ro. Two of her friends, Vidar and Ketil, drove us to the famous (and scarily long/high) Holmenkollbakken ski jump. The weather had been unusually sunny and warm for the locals (up to about 30C but about 18C today) for the past few weeks so the views of the city and fjord were fabulous. A pleasant lunch was had at a restaurant overlooking Oslo from the other side of the fjord.

At the end of the visit with Ro, I asked to be dropped off at the Natural History Museum, Norway’s oldest and largest – I am a museum and aquarium junkie and like to see these wherever I go. Walking through the Botanic Gardens, in which the museum stands, I was amused to see a small robot cutting the grass. I knew such things existed but had never seen one. Wonder if they make them for paddocks? The museum shop had some unusual souvenirs, but I passed on the moose poo earrings (yes, really!). It would have been fun showing them to Australian Customs on the way home, though.

The next day started with a visit to the excellent Viking Ship Museum, where there are three reconstructed Viking ships and many other archaeological finds, including carvings and skeletons. I’d seen these on documentaries, but being in the same room was something else – they are shallow, wide and long, absolutely massive things.

Photo by Mark Clements or Anne Mackenzie

Photo by Mark Clements or Anne Mackenzie

Unfortunately, not long after we arrived, a horde of other tourists arrived from one of the big cruise liners (these carry about 4,000 people each), so the place became very crowded and less easy to take photos in. We had our own local guide who explained a few things to us. The whole place was riveting despite the crowd.

The next stop was the Vigeland installation in Frogner Park. It contains 200 large, impressive sculptures by a single artist, Gustav Vigeland.

Walking in Frogner Park (Anne-Marie the guide in the front, middle); photo by Jerry Coleby-Williams

That was the end of exploring Oslo, although there would have been much more to see. The next day involved a flight to Longyearbyen in the Arctic circle and the start of the 10-day wildlife cruise in the Arctic (see the next post).