Aurora-spotting in Ålta

We woke up this morning to a bitterly-cold today; the weather app told us we could expect temperatures today as low as -14ºC. This is Norway in the winter – I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t been cold. 🙂

We enjoyed our breakfast up in the buffet as usual, before venturing out on deck, where we could see lots of sea-ice slowly floating around near the ship. There wasn’t much wind, but it was that still, biting, razor-sharp cold “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” (as the song goes), and my bare hands and feet in their flipflops soon started tingling.

Back in cabin 3326 we pottered around for a bit before deciding to go to get the shuttle bus into town again. We didn’t really have anything planned for today, other than a trip deep into the countryside tonight, but we enjoyed ourselves walking in the snow in the crisp air yesterday, and some exercise would certainly come in handy after all our over-indulgences on the ship. 🙂

Disembarking the Borealis, we once more made our way into town and had a look around. We bought some postcards and, when we handed over the Norwegian kroner we’d had since our last visit to Norway in 2016, the guy behind the counter said it was old currency and we’d have to change it at the bank! We ended up using a credit card to pay for four postcards, and the guy said we could get the stamps from the post-office.

Looking for somewhere to write the cards out, we found a small café/bar and went in and ordered a glass of Ringnes (Norwegian beer) each. Some locals sitting at a nearby table asked if we had come on the ship, and we explained that indeed we had, and that we had been to Ålta before, in November 2014. We have found the Norwegian people to be very friendly and they all speak excellent English.

After our beers, we wrapped up well before venturing outside again, and set off to look for the post office. One thing we had noticed was that a lot of the local people got around in the snow on a sort of “ski scooter”. Like a kid’s scooter, where one foot is on the footplate and the other is on the ground to push you along, but with skis instead of wheels. The scooters had a small seat on the front that you could either place your shopping bags on, or strap on a small child to give them a ride.

As we stood watching, a middle-aged couple came around the corner, each on one of these scooters with their shopping bags hanging from the handle. We watched their progress and, just before they “parked up” in the specially-provided ranks outside the supermarket, they saw us watching them and asked if we would like to have a go! They said it was an ideal way of getting around on a snowy/icy pavement and it had only taken them 10 minutes to get from their home to here, three kilometres away.

I gingerly took hold of the handles and placed one foot on the footplate and tentatively pushed off with my other foot, giggling all the while. Then Trevor had a go while the middle-aged couple looked on in amusement. At least it was something that the locals do that we had tried, and it was kind of them to let us have done so. 🙂

Trevor having a go on the “ski scooter”

We then looked on Google Maps for the nearest post office, but the directions just took us to a post box! We decided we’d post the cards from another port or from the ship, and made our way back to the bus park to await the shuttle. When we arrived, the bus was already there, so we boarded and arrived back at the Borealis around 1.30pm, in nice time for lunch.

Once again we ate in the Lido restaurant and, as we sat down, a pint of Strongbow cider and a glass of cava appeared almost immediately! The barman, Stanley, had seen us come in and told us the drinks had come “directly from the bridge”. 🙂 We see Stanley a lot; he serves in the self-service as well as the Observatory. One of these days he will bring us the ‘usual’ drinks when we’d decided to have a cocktail, or something else! At least with the all-inclusive drinks package it’s not really costing anything if they bring you the wrong drink. 🙂

We spent the rest of the afternoon just reading, relaxing, wandering around the ship both inside and out on deck. On a cruise ship you can do as much or as little as you want, and we’re never bored. Sometimes it’s great never having to look at a clock or even know what day of the week it is; it makes a wonderful change from the working day where deadlines and the clock rule your life.

Tonight it was our turn to be absent from table #126. We ate our dinner in the buffet as we were just dressed casually and warmly ready for our trip out to the countryside. We had to present ourselved in the Neptune lounge at 8.00pm to join our tour, and we made sure our phones were fully charged and that we were wearing our walking boots and had hats, scarves and gloves, as we would be out in the frigid air for at least three hours tonight.

Our coach number was soon called and we disembarked the Borealis and crunched our way across the snow to board. It was already about -8ºC and we knew it would become colder. However, as we had around a 40 minute coach ride before arriving at the camp at Paeskatun, we didn’t want to sit sweltering in all our layers in a heated bus, so we removed our outerwear and placed it on the overhead racks.

We set off through the darkened streets; we noticed that many of the homes had lamps in their windows – this was to alleviate the 24-hours of darkness they would experience during the two-month long polar night. Snow was piled high by the side of the road and the road itself sparkled with ice. Our female bus driver, however, drove carefully and safely and soon we were pulling up in the parking area of the Paeskatun. We all put our coats, hats, scarves and gloves back on, and I had also brought a cosy alpaca wrap to wear over my coat if necessary.

We made our way down towards the camp underneath the black dark skies. We could see the glow of a lavvu which contained a campfire inside; there was also a real igloo subtly lit by fake tealights. Several huts contained tables with refreshments, a small shop and some restrooms. Looking up at the sky, I could see what I thought looked like a band of light arcing its way over the snowy hills – was this the aurora borealis?

As the human eye cannot really discern colour in dim light, it’s not unusual for the northern lights to look white or only to have a pale green hue. You also need a good few minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness so you can see better. Any photographs taken, however, would show up the green.

One of the guides gave us a brief outdoor slide show; what was intriguing was that the white screen onto which the presentation was projected was made entirely from packed snow! One of the slides contained the settings to put your camera on to get the best shots of the aurora; I hoped that the night mode on my Galaxy S21 Ultra would do the trick for me automatically; one of the reasons I had bought this phone was for the fantastic camera.

Our faces upturned to the sky, we could definitely see the aurora forming, so we found a vantage point and I put my phone into night mode and started snapping away. It was strange; I couldn’t see anything on the phone screen when I was pointing the camera towards the aurora, but when I took the photo and then looked at the result, it was amazing. I was well pleased with the photos I took, shown below.

Northern Light near Ålta, Norway

From time to time the northern lights faded for a few minutes before returning, and we would use the opportunity to go into the lavvu and warm our frozen hands before the camp fire, or go into the igloo which, because it was sheltered, was surprisingly cosy.

As my hands were freezing and the weather app on my phone said the temperature was now -10ºC, we decided to go into the refreshments hut and get a good, hot coffee and a slice of Norwegian cake. The cardboard coffee cup helped warm our hands and, after using the loo, we were ready to take on the elements again.

Another thing that this area is well-known for was its slate-mining. Slate extraction has been an important industry in Alta since the 1860s. Generations of hard-working slate workers have supported their families by taking out the slate located in the mountains south of Alta town, and at Pæskatun there are now 3rd and 4th generation slate workers.

As forecast, the skies had now clouded over and the aurora couldn’t be seen, so the guide took a block of slate and a cutting machine, and demonstrated how to make a roof tile. If you wanted, you could volunteer to have a go yourself! Afterwards, we went into a little shop that contained souvenirs, such as door signs with your name on them, made out of local slate.

Altogether, we had about three hours at the camp. Apart from the aurora there was so much to see and do the time just flew. We were so pleased that we had managed to see the aurora, because those who came out last night had been unlucky. It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but Mother Nature has the ultimate say. 🙂

We arrived back at the port about 23:15 hours, and I couldn’t resist taking some photos of the Borealis, all lit up. She looked wonderful! 🙂

M/S Borealis at night

Back in our cabin, we hung up our coats, hats etc and changed from our walking boots into trainers, and decided to go up to the Observatory for a night-cap. We could still smell the smoke from the wood campfire on our clothes, not an unpleasant smell. The band Funky Blue were playing, and we took our places in those big reclining chairs, my shoes kicked off and my feet curled under me, while I enjoyed a glass of cava then followed it with a sangria. What a brilliant evening we’d had! The Northern Lights, for many people, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we had managed to see them on three different cruises.

It was around 1.00am when we returned to 3326 and settled down for the night. The Borealis was due to set sail for Bodø at 2.30am, so we would spend tomorrow at sea. We were fast asleep long before our trusty vessel cast off in the wee small hours.

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