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When the pandemic hit in 2020, many of us disappeared overnight into a blur of lockdowns – a Groundhog Day of Zoom calls, team meetings, daily scanning of infection and death rates, waiting for a vaccine and rarely leaving our homes. As a sinister silence enveloped cities, words like RNA, PCR, AZ, Moderna, Pfizer and Lateral Flow Test entered our vocabulary. People were saying goodbye to dying family members on phones and tablets. Travel for pleasure seemed a far away, trivial indulgence.
When we emerged from the chaos two years later, many were scared to travel – no longer trusting the health of their fellow passengers, not knowing which seemingly innocuous traveller harboured the virus. Those who did decide to brave it faced a complicated new world. What was a Passenger Locater Form and where do you find it? Does the COVID-19 travel insurance cover a new lockdown in another country? How do I download my proof of vaccination? Which countries will accept my vaccination? Do I need to be tested when I arrive in another country? Is it a PCR or a lateral flow? They are charging WHAT for the test – are you joking? The barcode isn’t working, what should I do? Most groups had a self-styled expert who commented with authority (but no obvious credentials) on the best combination of vaccinations to get. Staying home seemed easier. Almost.
Stifled and demoralised, many of us weighed up the pros and cons of foreign travel. Then concluded that we just needed to take a deep breath and jump. So, when the travel bans lifted, my husband and I headed for Norway.
To Tromsø – the Arctic capital lying north of the Arctic Circle. Aspirationally, Tromsø is described on many websites as “The Paris of the North”. No one quite knows why. It isn’t obviously French aside from the odd tourist. Chiefly, early visitors to Tromsø found it more sophisticated than they had previously supposed. The main draw for international visitors is that Tromsø is in the Aurora Zone, and high up on the lists of outstanding places in the world to see the Northern Lights. It was breathtaking. Everything was covered in dazzling white snow, requiring careful navigation to public transport and taxis. The drive into Tromsø takes you through a long network of gloomy but magnificent underground tunnels and roundabouts, to reduce overground congestion – an homage to modern civil engineering.
Stylish but eye-wateringly expensive, Tromsø is very well-organised for tourism, hotels and tours. There’s a fair amount to keep tourists occupied here – a futuristic Arctic Cathedral, a small aquarium with performing seals, tasteful shops selling warm clothes, fur rugs, and reindeer or moose meat. There is a thriving social scene with many bars and restaurants to hang out. These include the hostilely named Bastard Bar and Rorbua, apparently the most famous pub in Norway. The drinking and partying carry on late into the night here.
The real Arctic adventures lie outside the city though. On the first night, we head out of Tromsø to a camp an hour away, to learn to ride a snowmobile. James Bond had made it look cool and effortless. This was an opportunity to be cool and daring also. Truthfully, I felt neither, and was nervous. Snowmobiling is both a motor and winter sport; several websites have warnings and cautionary statistics on the risks. We are given lots of warm gear at the camp – it takes half an hour just to pull everything on. A balaclava, helmet, thick-padded overalls, enormous thermal boots and gloves. It feels like overkill until I realise it is -11°C outside, and windy. There is a short orientation with our guides and the gist of the instructions is safety. You must be able to produce a valid driving license, be over 16, and can’t be pregnant to drive a snowmobile. You must not drive too fast. Don’t deliberately hang back so you can accelerate, because you will be removed from the group. The passenger must lean in the same direction as the driver, on turns, to prevent the snowmobile toppling. You must keep to the trail. It is illegal in Norway to leave it.
And so on. We absorbed the instructions and were directed to our snowmobiles.
It isn’t actually too challenging to drive the snowmobile – it consists mainly of using an accelerator and brake, much like a moped on skis. The weather and darkness made me uneasy, rather than any demand for technical ability. I could feel my heart thudding as we set off one by one, single file, to the roar of engines and the smell of fumes. It was cold and exhilarating as we climbed higher and higher up the slopes. I needed all my concentration to control the heavy snowmobile through densely packed snow to avoid skidding or, worse, toppling over.
I silently congratulated myself on doing an excellent job. Until the guide rode over and politely asked if I could go any faster. The subtle implication was that I was holding people up with a middle-aged pace. This seemed unfair as he had never specified a minimum speed, and seemed to be contradicting his own stiff instructions, but I sped up. Stopping at the top of the trail, we took in the scene – silent and atmospheric under the moon, sleet coming in sideways lit up in the headlights.
Chilled, we later warmed up around a fire in a traditional Sami tent (the Sami are the indigenous people of Northern Europe, traditionally nomadic reindeer herders). Here, we have our first brief glimpse of the Northern Lights, otherwise called the Aurora Borealis, swirling above the tent.
Galileo coined the name Aurora Borealis way back in 1619. It is a combination of Aurora – the Roman goddess of the morning, and Boreas – the Greek god of the North Wind. Their counterpart in the Southern Hemisphere are the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. The lights are a dramatic phenomenon – waves of green, blue and pink flashing across the sky on dark nights. Otherworldly and a bit spooky, they spawned superstitions and myths across Scandinavia, Europe and North America. Feared and revered in equal measure, the very nervy even armed themselves against the lights. Varied explanations were offered for their presence. They were an arch-leading warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla – the Viking paradise for slain warriors.
The Sami concluded that they were the souls of the dead; you must not draw attention to yourself, by whistling or waving, say, for the fear of decapitation. They could make childbirth easier as long as the pregnant woman did not look at them, resulting in a cross-eyed child. They were the souls of stillborn children. They were the souls of hunted animals. Or a portent of impending death. It is a long list.
With the benefit of science, we know now that auroras occur when charged particles leave the sun (called solar winds) and enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the magnetic north pole. These mingle with the gases in our atmosphere to create a ‘spark’ that glows – for instance, green for oxygen, and red/pink for nitrogen. These are the Northern lights, and there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about them.
The weather conditions are critical to seeing the lights. It must be dark and largely cloudless. The further North you are the better. Many apps claim to predict where you are most likely to see them. It is best to be sceptical about these claims and apps, as it is all unpredictable. On a Northern Lights ‘Chase’, drivers can travel hundreds of kilometres out of town, to localities with clear skies, constantly communicating with other guides about spottings. Many tales of wasted money and disappointment are repeated on these trips to manage your expectations. These inevitably involve a Japanese tourist who returned year after year to see the lights, without success.
We did spot the lights on one very cold night, a long way out of Tromsø. People leapt out of the vehicle with tripods chasing the Northern Lights and cameras, breathless with anticipation. I stared up at the sky for a long time but, mostly, the lights looked like grey smudges with an occasional green flash. Neck muscles aching, I had to admit to a strong sense of let-down, after weeks of expectation. Our cameras told a different story though.
As if by magic, vivid swirls of colour showed up in the photographs, that I hadn’t seen when looking up directly. So, one of the realities of the Northern Lights is that a camera will capture the spectrum of the lights much better than your eyes can. Still, I did have the photos to prove that the lights (and I) were there at the same time. Our journey back to Tromsø took us through a neighbourhood where a Sami herder keeps his reindeer – a surreal sight among the suburban bungalows and number plates.
The next day we went ‘mushing’ – leading a team of huskies to drive a dog-sled through the snow. This is probably the most memorable experience you can have in Norway. You are advised to have a good level of physical fitness to participate. For example, be able to run uphill in the snow, have good balance including on one foot, and most importantly, as I later discovered, have a strong grip.
I had signed up, but knew this was a controversial sport, often in the media spotlight. The stories mainly focus on deaths during Alaska’s Iditarod – a long distance dog sled race, and an incident from Whistler in Canada where 56 dogs were reportedly put down in 2010 following declining bookings after the Winter Olympics. There are conflicting views around the ethics of dog-sledding, from both mushers and animal rights campaigners. It is a highly emotive issue.
I couldn’t really have an informed view without seeing it for myself. When we turned up at the dog sledding camp, I was wary, ready to pull out at any sign that all was not well. My fears, however, were unfounded. The sled dogs looked healthy, active and very alert. A few dogs were wandering around freely.
The guides were open and frank and answered all the questions put to them. Our trainer gave us strict instructions to help the dogs on uphill sections by getting off the sleds and pushing. The dogs were excited and seemed raring to go. So, I was reassured and ready to begin.
The sound of barking was deafening as we lined up. The sled is a simple vehicle controlled by a foot operated lever/brake. You stand on this brake to slow down. There is no steering – just a bar to hold on to. The dogs decide the direction of travel and you must trust them. We were instructed to hold on to the bar even if the sled tips over. There’s a fur covered seat for the passenger in front of the person driving, and a team of six dogs, hardy Alaskan huskies, pulled from the front. Easy.
I sensed everyone was tense as we waited to begin, hoping to get it right. The loud barking stopped as soon as the sleds started to move, following the guide at the front. I hadn’t anticipated just how fast the sled would move through the icy wind and snow-covered fields. Or how bumpy the ride is. It was really quite hard to hang on to the sled as it careered sharply from side to side over mounds of slippery compacted ice. An unlucky German discovered this as he let go of the sled for a split second – leaving the dogs to race away with his wife in tow amidst panic-stricken yells and arm waving. This had high comedy value for us, although, in the tourist’s defence, it was easily done.
Ride over, you can make new friends in a warm tent, trading tales of poor balance and misfortune over Bidos – a traditional Sami reindeer stew with vegetables. You are free to wander through the dog yard and befriend the huskies. They can be adopted into good homes when their working lives are over. They are easy to love – these friendly and inquisitive working dogs. We returned to the Tromsø hotel to battle the online registrations, passenger forms and COVID-19 certificates that would permit us to return home. Back to frayed tempers, airport chaos and bumper to bumper traffic- signs that the world is hobbling back to normal.
So, there it was. My first proper foray into travel after a long break. Touristy but fun, in exquisite snowscapes with the acquisition of largely useless skills in snowmobile and dog sled navigation. The psychological effects of the pandemic have been profound. Amidst the heartbreak and exhaustion, it seems frivolous to discuss what it meant for those who travelled regularly to re-discover the world.
How it was quintessential to their happiness, and the claustrophobia imposed by the lockdowns. Reminiscing over past journeys kept me going through many bleak days – filled with news of sick friends and dying colleagues. All those memories of researching new destinations, packing your kit bag, and plane tickets radiating hope in a dull inbox. The smells and sounds of a foreign airport, and finally walking out into a new country. It has always made life joyful. I for one am glad that we can journey once more.
Divya Maitreyi Chari is a neuroscientist and Professor of Neural Tissue Engineering at the Keele School of Medicine in the UK. She has previously published articles on a jungle survival course in British Guyana, travels in Patagonia, the Galapagos islands, Southern Africa and along the Bhutan-Tibet border.