After months of planning, months of training, and countless feakouts when I thought about what I was doing, it was no longer “next year”, or “next week” but instead…now.
To avoid an early-morning cross-London Tube journey with heavy bags, I chose to spend Sunday night in a Travelodge in west London near Heathrow airport. Despite walking the wrong way out of Hounslow West station to catch my bus to the hotel, the Sunday night was not time for adventure. I got up early Monday morning, showered, checked out and waited outside for my taxi.
Which it turned out the hotel staff had forgotten to book.
We were instructed to assemble at the Scandinavia Airwarys check in desk at Heathrow Airport, three hours before out flight was due to take off. It had been a similar set up when I went to Peru, but I remember that feeling slightly easier: I just had to look for people in hiking boots, Macmillan t-shirts and large rucksacks. But what did people look like when they were going to the Arctic?
Lucky for me, one guy was already there and waiting — while he might not have been dressed in a snowsuit, he did have that outdoorsy look. People started to join us quite rapidly, with each new arrival asking “Across the Divide?” or “Dog sledding?”. Before long, there was quite a group of us assembled — but no trip leader. We began to wonder if we had been deliberately told to get there early so that the group could begin to bond with each other, or if it was a plan to get everyone to the airport on time.
Eventually, everyone was together — including the trip leader, the trip doctor and a rep from Across the Divide who wasn’t actually coming on the trip itself. We checked in, dropped our bags, and killed time in the airport.
The flight to Oslo was short and largely uneventful. I say “largely” because I was sure this was the first flight I’d ever taken that didn’t have a safety briefing — it wasn’t until our return flights that I realised there was one, but it was done entirely in Norwegian, so when I hadn’t been watching I hadn’t known what was being said. Oslo airport’s internal transfers terminal seemed very Scandinavian: it was smart, clean, quite small, very expensive, and not worth noting for much more than that.
From my notebook: “7pm. Alta from the air and in the rapidly-approaching darkness seems icy, snowy and rocky. Dark lakes and fjords, reflecting a bright moon and stars. The cold fresh air, and a feeling of excitement”. We took a minibus from Alta airport to our first night’s lodge at Gargia — the main part of the town of Alta (for it seemed to cover quite a large area with not much to see) was quickly left behind to darkness, snow, and the occasional red-painted farm building.
The picture at the top is the Gargia Fjellstue lodge, our base and accomodation for the first night of the adventure. There were half a dozen lodges, the main building which included the dining room, and the kennels for our 70-something dogs. The first night was luxury; the lodges had under-floor heating, showers, electricity and there was a bar in the main buidling. Dinner was cooked for us by our hosts, Cathrine and Pål — a delicious reindeer stew called something like “Beadle”.
After dinner we mainly rested and talked — until it was decided to check for the Northern Lights. At first, it seemed like there was nothing to see, but then when you stood for a minute, faint misty patches in the sky that looked like cloud would begin to brighten.
Again from the notebook: “10pm. Aurora Borealis!! Green sheets of light, appearing, brightening, then fading. My camera can’t capture them — but what a sight!”. Yes, unfortunately, it seemed my compact Canon camera wasn’t going to be up to the job — I just couldn’t find a setting for long exposure, but seeing the Northern Lights was as good as capturing them on camera. You could stand out all night watching them, but it was time for an early night — because the next day the adventure was to really begin: a 30km journey by dog sled from Gargia to Souluvombi.