Saturday, 1 February 2014

Oslo, Norway and Iceland

Craig Writes;
8th January 2014
Welcome to Oslo, Norway. With less than 180,000 citizens it is one of the petit fours of North Atlantic capitals.  I'm not really surprised that people aren't arriving by the busload to come live here.  It is beautiful, in a wintery Narnia kind of way, but is also bloody cold.  Very bloody cold. The average winter maximum is minus one.
And expensive.  It's very very expensive.  Think twenty Aussie dollars for a bog standard single beef patty Whopper - cheese is extra- $60 for a pizza, and we're not talking gourmet toppings, and $9 for a coffee.  We didn't even bother to find out how much the Reindeer steaks or the Whale burgers were.

Not sure I'm ready to eat Prancer on a plate

Now I know where local artist Edvard Munch got his inspiration for his uber famous painting, The Scream, tourists menu shopping for somewhere to eat . 

I suppose it is some compensation that the average wage here is high, around $75k p.a.  Even so, at those prices you would think it must still be hard to get by. Having said that the streets were full of people, shops were busy and the restaurants seemed to be thriving.  Go figure.

It all looks so perfect you expect someone to run out with a clapperboard and yell,'Action'.

We're here for less than a day so it was off for a brisk walk in the chilly air of dusk. We headed down to the docks for a casual meander around Akershus Castle, an 800 year old medieval fortress that guards the foreshore.  

Akershus Castle

On the way back we found a small place for dinner then headed to the hotel to get ready for our trip to Iceland.

9th January 2014
It took us a little less than three hours to fly to Iceland. In Norway we experienced varying degrees of cold but here in Iceland it's just plain bone chillingly freezing.  But we're ready for it.  We dedicated a full suitcase packed with all sorts of goodies for just this moment. 

Anything here other than the largest body of water is turned to ice within minutes by the freezing Arctic winds. The good and bad of it is you'll never get your shoes wet by stepping in a puddle but you may find yourself skating across a thin sheet of ice with nothing but a suitcase between you and the ground.
We are staying at The Hotel Ranga.  A remote four star Wilderness Lodge with a reputation as the place to be to visit exploding volcanoes, take Glacier walks or view the Aurora Borealis.

The Red Cedar of Hotel Ranga. Stunning

It's a two hour drive from the airport and it can be a bit tricky once you get out into the countryside. The roads are narrow and once darkness sets in the driving does become a bit harrowing. At this time of year the sun is nothing more than a casual visitor. It makes a short guest appearance between 11am and 4pm before racing off to bless some other land with it's abundant warmth.  

It's 3pm and the sun is already on its way

But we were lucky, Anastas and Nora's journey would be much more challenging.
They would set off tomorrow night at 11pm in the middle of a snow blizzard. The roads almost completely obliterated and the road signs unreadable. The same drive would take them more than three hours. 

The lodge is set way back off the main road and stands solitary in an open snowswept field. It is stark, desolate and beautiful.  A long winding driveway, small banks of freshly ploughed snow along its edges, brings us to a large carpark full of snow covered cars. The warm orange glow of the lights in the reception area beckon but first we have to brave the 50 metres of freezing winds and frozen puddles that stand between us and the front door.

This is so surreal for us Southern Hemisphere folk

Nothing says 'WELCOME' like a nine feet high stuffed Polar Bear.  This enormous growling giant greeted us as we entered the foyer. His paws are the size of my face and I would need a chair to touch the tip of his nose. What a magnificent and terrifying sight he would have made in the wild.

I went the high road

Anastas went the low road
And this was just too many drinks with dinner

At the back of the lodge is a gently sloping paddock, a patchwork of brown frozen grass and erratic blankets of snow that rolls down to meet a twisted river. It's ample width and steady flow the only things that save it from freezing solid.  A large Jacuzzi, steam rising of the bubbling water, lies at the bottom of a short and treacherous path, only metres from our cabin.

The view from our room
The Hotel Ranga is a place designed to rest and relax inbetween the numerous different adventures that are here to explore. The second floor lounge area is an oasis of plush leather sofas. A haven to snooze, read, write or just sink a few bevvies and watch the snowfall.

Half of the CVW travelling troupe enjoying some plushness
If we weren't here we were in the games room playing pool or having a game of 'last man standing' chess.  Charlie and Ana would later spend hours here building domino runs or buildings out of Jenga blocks.

Yes, that is a real Reindeer horn chandelier
10th January

We're waiting for our friends from Vienna to roll up so today we decide to just chill around the Lodge. Jigsaw puzzles, some reading, some writing and a couple of beers at Happy Hour.  
I think it was around sunset, 4pm, when it started to snow.  Big fat white flakes fell like a million billion dancing butterflies twisting and turning in a vortex of fluffy white brilliance.  

Seeing the snow tumble like this was pure magic
All through dinner and late into the very early hours of the morning, down it came.  There would be no late night call out from the staff tonight to come see the Northern Lights. 

Christina, Callum and Charlie decided to hit the hot tub after dinner to experience a bubbling Jacuzzi in the middle of a snowfall. I foolishly declined and may regret that as an experience that I let slip by.  Christina was giggling and laughing like a schoolgirl as I stood back and played photographer. It was an unplanned moment of pure joy.

Afloat in a sea of snow, what an amazing memory 

11th January 2014
Nora, Anastas and Ana safely arrived at 2am after a three hour drive through a very heavy blizzard.  That would have been tough going, even for seasoned Northern Europeans.

The morning after the snowfall

Not a blade of frozen grass to be seen now

Today we are off to snowmobile up to the Myrdalsjokull Glacier that lies at the very top of Mt Katia, one of the largest mountains in Iceland. After I find my car first.  It's about an hours drive from the Lodge before we turn onto a short road and then into a driveway full of cars that are dwarfed by a couple of enormous monster trucks.

Somewhere under here is my car
About to embark on an amazing adventure
These bloated beasts with their fat giant tyres were to be our transport up the snowy slopes of the mountain to where our purring snowmobiles were warming up for us. 
We were all supplied with a pair of gargantuan overalls that fit cleanly over the top of our already substantial layers of jackets and thermals. We will need every single layer.  A pair of warm knitted gloves, a pair of thick fur lined boots, a helmet and a balaclava complete the supplied ensemble. 

There are twelve of us crammed into the biggest of the two vehicles and maybe that was just a couple too many.  Almost at our destination, the lead vehicle having disappeared over the next rise, we stalled in a deep patch of snow.  For the next fifteen minutes we ploughed back and forward, reversing and charging, letting the tyres down, reversing and charging, more air out of the tyres and reversing and charging till finally... we slowly crawled through the deep trough we had gouged in the snow and onto the waiting snowmobiles.
It was a magnificent journey of spectacular scenery but only a taste of what we were to get on our trip to the top. 

No words needed
The snow up at the drop off point is knee to waist deep. After a quick lesson on how to drive a snowmobile we were on our way. The most important instruction is to follow in the tracks of the snowmobile in front of you or risk tipping the thing over.  Broken leg, blood, much pain..not very nice and to be avoided at all cost.
I had Callum on the back of mine and Christina had Charlie on hers. With passengers snuggly tucked in behind us and the engines revving we flicked our visors down and off we went.  A conga line of humming, zinging giant red beetles snaking across, up, down and sideways over vast sloping plains of virgin snow.                                        
As our confidence grew and the pace picked up it soon became evident that the paper thin balaclavas they give you are not going to protect your face from the biting wind that sneaks up from the bottom of the visor. The very atoms of the fabric were starting to freeze into an icy mask that clung to your face. Your face soon starts to numb, your lips turn blue and refuse to move.  Then the toes start to get a bit chilly from the snow that manages to find it's way in between the laces and down the sides of the boots. Charlie complained he couldn't feel his toes anymore.  Thankfully the feeling was only temporary. Oh and the hands, man they felt like they were being hit by a blow torch every time you de-gloved to film or take a shot.  Having said all that, the rest of you does remain toasty and warm. 

By the time we reach the peak we are at about 1400 metres and the temperature is around minus 16. It is quite surreal.  We stand in wonder, little black blots on this dazzlingly pure and pristine landscape. The sky is brilliantly clear and so perfectly blue.  It is desolate, stark and raw and possibly one of the most beautiful scenes of nature I have ever seen.

We are looking down and out to the North Atlantic Ocean.

Yes, yet another photo of the CVW's standing in an impossibly beautiful landscape 

Charlie and me, and my ride, lucky number 42
We make snow angels, roll around, throw snow balls, take photos and videos before hopping back on our blood red beetles and creasing our way back down the mountain side. The scratchy signature of our tracks the only sign of us being there. 

Callum decides to smash a large piece of ice across his head because...
it looks really...
 It's a nice feeling knowing that the next light snowfall will erase all signs of our ever having been here.

Once back at home base we climbed down from our giant car and out of our giant suits, handed back the fur lined boots and thick gloves and headed back towards Hotel Ranga.  Hopefully the clear skies will mean a call out during the night to finally get to see the Northern Lights.

We stop on the way back to explore the stunning waterfalls at Skaftafell Falls but quickly realised that without the extra warmth of the overalls and the sliver of warmth from the fast setting sun, the temperature had plummeted.  It seemed colder than at the top of the mountain.  We last two minutes before being forced back into the warmth of the car.

It was that cold my teeth hurt when I smiled
It had been a magnificent day and the general chit chat in the monster truck was that conditions were good for a viewing tonight. We went to bed with the eager anticipation of a 2am wake up call.
Sadly the Aurora Borealis does not come into view. We were all called out into the carpark during dinner by an overly enthusiastic Manager but it was nothing more than an abstract wisp on the far horizon.  Not the light spectacular we were hoping for.  We are here one more night but the conditions for tomorrow have been called 'unfavourable'. We will see.

We did see this though on the way to the airport though

Anastas decided to make his own Aurora Borealis

12th January 2014
It's a shocker of a day. We were hoping to go walking on the Glacier but it was cancelled due to 60 mile per hour winds. Fair enough. 
Instead it was another day of relaxing- can you have too many of these?- reading, writing, chatting and planning.  In a moment of extreme madness Nora, Anastas, Charlie and me decided to have one last bash at the Jacuzzi. I felt I could in some small way try and recapture the moment I missed the other night during the snow fall. It was a complete disaster and it is a wonder none of us got a case of hyperthermia.  Particularly Anastas who had a total brain freeze and decided to jump out of the hot tub and go run around in the snow with just his boardies on.
Crazy Bulgarians.

Some friendly locals wave you off on the way to the airport

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