In search of Amundsen, aurora borealis, and a-ha
04.03.2012 - 08.03.2012 4 °C
Since returning to England from the last leg of my RTW trip in 2009, it would be fair to say that my income has been on the low side, certainly compared to the halcyon days when I earned a crust as an incompetent IT project manager. So my travels since then have remained at the budget end of the spectrum - a few days with a friend in Andorra, a visit to my sister in Sardinia, a 40th birthday treat to Venice in the low season via a £22 return flight on Ryanair. But the coincidence of two events leads me to Norway for this year's jaunt, the same Norway that is a regular contender for the title of the most expensive country in Europe. Sometimes you have to look beyond the money and consider the experience.
The main attraction for me in Norway in 2012 is the Northern Lights. The solar activity that generates the Northern Lights runs on a roughly 11 year cycle, and this year is a peak in that cycle. I could wait another 11 years until I have (perhaps) more money, but I could also be dead by 2023, so it's easy to convince myself that there's no time like the present. With Tromso being one of the most popular bases in the world from which to see the Northern Lights, when I find some reasonably priced flights and hotel rooms I immediately book them.
The second attraction revolves around my fascination with Antarctica, a subject that occupies more of my bookshelves than any other except general travel. 2012 marks the centenary of Scott reaching the South Pole, an achievement most famous because he and his party failed to make it back alive. Of course he wasn't the first man there - Amundsen and his team had already been and gone, and in fact were barely a week away from the safety of their main base at Framheim. The centenary of Amundsen's achievement was celebrated in December 2011, but by visiting Norway in 2012 I would be able to see exhibitions devoted to the "race to the pole" in both Norway and England.
Further rationales include the rumoured high percentage of blondes, the hope of bumping into one or more of the members of a-ha, and a fair amount of curiosity at being a first-time traveller to Scandinavia.
The flights work out in such a way that it's going to be most convenient to see Oslo first for a few days before flying north to Tromso. I peer out of the window as the plane descends to Rygge airport, noting only isolated patches of snow even though many of the smaller bodies of water seem to be frozen solid. It's brisk in Oslo but by no means unpleasantly cold. The guy next to me on the bus into the city centre is Ethiopian, as is the receptionist in my hotel. In fact, Oslo turns out to be considerably more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.
My hotel is in the centre but, with Oslo only having a population of about 600,000, I don't get the sense of being at the heart of a bustling metropolis. The architecture is neat and tidy and there seems to be a liking for sculptures. Trams add a throwback feel but there's an overall lack of exoticism that almost seems familiar, to the point where I consistently forget that the traffic is on the "wrong" side of the road. But I know I'm not in England because the subway runs essentially on an honour system, and I can walk right up to the Royal Palace in a way that would get me shot at Buck House. It also appears that jaywalking is illegal.
As a tourist, it's nice to be able to blend in (though I wouldn't have expected any hassle here anyway), and until I open my mouth people tend to assume that I'm Norwegian and hence can speak Norwegian (which I can't). English is so widely spoken that the only communication issues I have are with the occasional person who has immigrated from outside of Europe. No doubt part of the reason why Norwegians speak such good English is that English-language films are subtitled rather than dubbed, though I see some scope for confusion when the "Helen Zass" joke from "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" is rendered as "Helen Zarsk", which Google Translate tells me doesn't mean anything in Norwegian. Given the price of beer here, I'm interested when I see a sign outside a shop advertising "lager sale" but it turns out that that's the Norwegian for "stock sale" and the shop actually sells clothes.
Oslo has dozens of museums, and I spend most of my time in the capital inside one or another. My choices are driven predominantly by connections to Antarctica. The Fram Museum is the obvious place to start, as it contains the ship Fram (meaning "forward") used by Amundsen on his South Pole expedition. You can go onto the Fram, and the lowness of the ceilings is further evidence - along with the people I've seen and the scalp-scraping frame of my bathroom's shower cubicle - that Norwegians aren't quite the tall race I'd imagined. The Fram was originally designed for Nansen's (unsuccessful) attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, an endeavour that Amundsen was later to accomplish although in the Gjoa (also at the Fram Museum). There are exhibits relating to all of Nansen's and Amundsen's exploring, which emphasise the skills that they learned from the indigenous peoples of the Arctic such as the Inuit. The combination of those skills (such as dog-sledding) with cross-country skiing (which the Inuit did not know) resulted in an optimal method of polar travel that is reflected in the number of Norwegian "firsts" in that field.
Situated close to the Fram Museum is a memorial to the 5 men who comprised Amundsen's polar party. The memorial was unveiled on the centenary date by King Harald.
I also see the excellent "Arctic Experts" exhibit at the Historical Museum, which further details the lives of the region's indigenous peoples and again emphasises just how much Amundsen learned from them.
I look for my final piece of Antarcticana at the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, which supposedly contains Scott's skis from his ill-fated expedition, however I can't find them. I then activate my fear of heights by visiting the top of the famous Holmenkollen ski jump, which unnerves me not so much because I can see the ground, more because I know the jump has been built using a cantilever design so there's nothing but air beneath the floor.
Having now seen exhibitions in both England and Norway regarding Scott's and Amundsen's expeditions, and framing them in the context of what I already know about each of the journeys, there are some stark contrasts to be drawn. Amundsen's team was better prepared, in that his men were all expert skiers and navigators and - in particular - they employed the techniques of Arctic peoples (e.g. with regard to dog-sledding and clothing) to great effect. Scott on the other hand did not prioritise dogs above Siberian ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, and it was this failing that largely contributed to his party's demise.
Scott's planning was also somewhat quirky. He was still raising funds for the expedition even when he had already set sail, so it was quite a surprise to see that some of the money had been spent on items of dubious criticality. There were different sets of crockery and cutlery for the different ranks in his crew (whereas the crockery and cutlery on board the Fram were basic by comparison). The stores included 10 cases of Courvoisier and 450kg of golden syrup, which seems excessive (though I was pleased to see that 300 tins of sprouts had been taken, not to mention 45kg of the dried variety). And how any expedition carrying 300 tins of beetroot could be expected to succeed, I don't know.
However it should be noted that Amundsen made up his route to the pole as he went along, since he was travelling through terra incognita, and hence he needed a slice of luck that a viable route existed. His expedition also produced little in the way of scientific knowledge, whereas Scott's significantly advanced the state of knowledge of geology, glaciology, meteorology, biology, and various other -ologies, data that is still being used today. It's a sign of just how engrained science was in Scott's mentality that about 15kg of rocks were found with his dead party, 15kg that could have easily been jettisoned to lighten the loads of men who were fighting for their lives. You could alternatively look at this as being simply foolish, but it can't be denied that Scott's focus in Antarctica was much more wide-ranging than Amundsen's. As such, the "race to the pole" is perhaps something of a misnomer, as the "race" aspect seems to have been predominantly on Amundsen's side.
It's fashionable nowadays to view Amundsen as the meticulous planner, assimilating everything he could possibly need to know in order to reach the pole first, and Scott as the bumbling fool, a personification of the British Empire's hubristic assumption that it always knew best. But to draw that distinction is to iron out a number of subtleties that are in fact essential to the understanding of both men and their motivations. It's unfortunate that their differing experiences at the South Pole have cast such a shadow over their other achievements - Scott's death shrouding the broader scientific advances of his expeditions, Amundsen's triumph making his other "firsts" (e.g. navigating the Northwest Passage and overflying the North Pole) mere footnotes.
Norway has of course produced famous explorers not exclusively associated with the polar regions, and the Kon-Tiki Museum gives me some insights into one of them - Thor Heyerdahl. I remember reading Heyerdahl's account of the Kon-Tiki expedition when I was a child, but at that stage in my life it merely seemed like a great adventure - I had no idea where Easter Island was, nor the significance of reaching it by sailing vessel from South America. Having now visited Easter Island and gained significantly more knowledge about how humans spread around the globe, it's fascinating to reacquaint myself with the particulars of Heyerdahl's expedition. It's by no means a disappointment that the prevailing scientific wisdom is against Heyerdahl's theory, even if he was able to demonstrate its practicability. The museum is home to both the Kon-Tiki and the Ra 2, the latter being the reed-built craft that Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados.
Continuing the sailing theme, I also visit the Viking Ship Museum, containing two of the best-preserved Viking longboats that have been found. I'm surprised by the intricacy of their woodwork, as well as the complexity of the carvings on some of the artefacts that they were found with. In the UK, the Vikings are associated with raping and pillaging and I had never stopped to think that their warlike tendencies masked much of a culture. I make a mental note to visit the Jorvik Centre in York, an exhibit devoted to the Vikings that is mere metres from my apartment but which I have somehow neglected to pop in to.
Norway has also contributed heavily to my taste in music but I find little in Oslo to indicate that the locals have taken my favourite Norwegian composers to heart in the way that I have. I was an enormous fan of a-ha in the '80s, and that liking has extended to the present day, though their later albums were a series of diminishing returns. 3 of their songs were in the select few that accompanied me on my 4 years travelling around the world. The only Norwegian that I had met prior to coming to Norway had dismissed them as "cheesy", and the only song of theirs I hear on my entire visit to their home country is "Lifelines" - by no means one of their most famous tracks - in a corner store. I also visit Stolper + Friends, an art gallery near Akke Brygge that is part-owned by Mags from the group, but my faint hope that he might put in an appearance is destined to go unmet.
Grieg is the other Norwegian composer I have a liking for, though I rarely listen to classical music. In his case, the Peer Gynt suite provided the theme for a drama production I was involved in at school when I was about 8. I remember prancing about the school hall to the martial pomp of "In the Hall of the Mountain King", and moving slowly to the swelling beauty of "Morning Mood". It's a perfect example of music that now evokes a particular time and place. It's hard to know whether I like the music because the drama was so much fun, or vice versa. Grieg also cropped up in my teens, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" being one of the themes in the computer game "Manic Miner", and of course his "Piano concerto in A minor" features in perhaps Morecambe and Wise's best ever sketch. However I don't see or hear much of Grieg in Oslo. My other musical wandering in the capital takes me around and on top of the Opera House, a triumph of modernist architecture.
Peer Gynt also appears on the Anchor Bridge (Ankerbrua), a crossing that separates downtown Oslo from the Bohemian neighbourhood of Grunerlokka. The bridge bears four bronze sculptures of characters from various fairytales, with the representation of Peer Gynt being a man on a stag - it reminds me that the story behind Peer Gynt, actually the play by another Norwegian, Ibsen, is not one that I'm familiar with.
Norway has also been active in other spheres of culture, with Edvard Munch's "The Scream" being an iconic image of Expressionist angst (and providing the inspiration for the killer's mask in the "Scream" series of movies). I'm ashamed of my ignorance when I discover that Munch is actually pronounced more like "monk" would be in Northern England, whereas I'd always thought he sounded like "munch" as in "chew". It's interesting that several of his other famous works such as "Anxiety" and "Despair" make use of a similar background sky to "The Scream". However a unifying theme in all his paintings seems to be that of despair or expectations of future disappointment.
After two solid days of museums, I devote my last day to simply wandering around, with the only entry on my itinerary being the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Of course Mother Nature chooses this day to lower the temperature and unleash a constant snowfall. Though York has a considerable Viking heritage, I note how differently people react to this change in conditions - in York, they would still go out in a T-shirt or miniskirt, whereas in Oslo people are covering up. With all this clothing, it's really difficult to tell just how many attractive blondes there are per square metre.
The Vigeland Sculpture Park is truly an amazing sight, even in bitter cold with my fingers numb and my glasses attracting a layer of snow. It contains a couple of hundred sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, all depicting mankind in various (naked) emotional states. I don't manage to see all of them but what I do see is food for thought, creating a curiosity as to what passed through Vigeland's mind when he was sculpting them.
It's still snowing lightly the next morning as I wait at a nearby hotel for the airport bus. The staff at Gardermoen airport whiz about on scooters, reminding me of their equivalents at Stockholm airport. I also find a bizarre apparatus resembling an inverted satellite dish on a pole, that chirps pleasantly if you walk near it. I don't know if it's supposed to lull you into imagining you're in the countryside rather than at an international airport, but it takes some of the sting off having to pay £5.20 for a couple of sandwiches.
Shortly after, I'm on a flight to Tromso.
[I have a lot of logistical information about visiting Oslo (and Tromso) that is too dull to put in here, but if you want to read that then please visit my other blog.]
[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account.]