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Old salty dog, new sweet tricks

This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller 20 October 2016.

Nothing but long woollen underwear and a waterproof onesie lies between me and the Arctic elements of Lofoten archipelago as I sit astride the speedboat’s saddle-like front seat for unadulterated views and wind impact. Captivated by the moody weather and primeval rock rising near-vertically from the inky water and disappearing into the mist above, I lose all sense of time. Meanwhile, back in the port of Stokmarknes, my ship has sailed.

The Norwegian coastline, not including every tiny island and inlet and Svalbard, is arguably around a third the length of Australia’s total coast but its land mass is only five percent of ours. Since 1893, Norway’s strewn communities have been sustained by a marine freight and transport service – now called Hurtigruten – which accommodates overnight passengers but refuses to classify itself as a cruise company. There’s no dressing up for dinner, no on-board entertainment, no different classes of travel, no waiting for straggling passengers.

The name Hurtigruten means the ‘fast route’ in honour of the coastal service’s revolutionary impact on the country when it first began, cutting delivery time of a domestic letter from months to days. Now 11 ships perpetually work the Norwegian coast on an 11-day return route between 34 ports from Kirkenes – 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle – down to Bergen, which is latitudinally similar to Oslo. Stops are generally 15 minutes long with some scheduled for 30 minutes and a handful are four hours. Ships collect and deliver mail, cars, tractors, furniture, electrical goods, fresh produce, and transport people including the occasional prisoner and dead body.

“You don’t need to describe Hurtigruten to any Norwegian – it’s part of us,” says the company’s spokesperson, Øystein Knoph, who’s as local as his name suggests. He shows me a 1930s photograph of his grandfather – born in the 1890s – who rowed the fjords and dog-sledded the winter landscape of Spitsbergen and Greenland where he trapped and hunted. In the sepia snapshot, the man is feeding polar bear cubs from a hand-held bowl.

But times have changed and, to stay afloat, so has Norway’s coastal express. Yet Hurtigruten hasn’t lost sight of the original purpose and local responsibilities. Tourists have always had a place on board but, as CEO Daniel Skjeldam explains, “Hurtigruten is a combination of a necessary lifeline for the communities we pass, and tourism. We’re all about what you experience from the ship”.

Which is why, only a day after boarding MS Richard With, I’m zipping around the Lofoten islands on a RIB – rigid inflatable boat – spotting puffins and sea eagles through fogged goggles and dreaming of moving into my own fjord-side cabin. It’s just after summer solstice and I’m here in Norway for the week to get a feel for Hurtigruten and attend the christening, in Svolvær, of the latest addition to their fleet: MS Spitsbergen. Norwegian adventurer, guide, lecturer and the first woman to reach the world’s seven summits and both poles, Cecilie Skog, will be there too to break the bottle.

At my Tromsø hotel the previous morning, Morten – more the Viking stereotype than any hair-extensioned Hollywood actor has ever been – poured coffee with a warrior-sized forearm and casually told me all about his city’s 60 polar days and 60 polar nights, his love of hiking and the cosy Norwegian concept of koselig. The further north you go in Norway, they say, the warmer people get.

I spent the rest of that day wandering the Polar Museum, touring Mack – the world’s northernmost brewery – then sea-kayaked amid snow-patched mountains under the instruction of fiercely kind local woman, Tove. Hurtigruten’s other Tromsø-based summer activities include a hike above the city or a trip to Kvaløya Island Wilderness Centre to cuddle husky pups. In winter, there’s a polar history walk for the four-hour southbound stopover or dog sledding on Kvaløya.

Back at the city’s waterfront, I dined on local fish dish, bacalao, before walking across Tromsø Bridge in broad daylight for a midnight concert of haunting operatic-style versions of traditional Sami music and Norwegian folksongs in the Arctic Cathedral. Then it was time to board.

As we sailed south, I stood on deck wide-eyed from jetlag and the excitement of being in Norway and because there were no obvious go-to-bed cues except a total absence of people. Gliding past enormous clusters of floundering blackfish and unsettled seagulls and the low-profile rural landscape, I tried to imagine it all in mid-winter – everything under snow and lit by a full moon or the northern lights with only the warm Gulf Stream current keeping the fjords from freezing.

But once I reached my cabin – a good functional space with a large porthole, single bed, couch, desk and ensuite – I fell asleep in seconds aboard our “floating base camp” as Øystein likes to call it. Some of his family members also boarded in Tromsø headed for the ship christening and live music event in Svolvær; around 150,000 Norwegians used the coastal express last year for travel within their own country.

“Local people treat Hurtigruten like a train or bus,” explains tour manager Harald Weinreich as MS Richard With crosses the Arctic Circle a few days later. He’s completely undermining Hurtigruten’s no-on-board-entertainment policy by wearing a plastic Viking helmet and flopping his fake fish around as we’re offered champagne and cod liver oil.

The son of a shipmaster, Tromsø-born Richard With grew to be a shipmaster himself as well as a merchant and left-wing politician. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, his steamship company answered the call to provide a year-round coastal express ferry service in Norway when no other company thought it possible given the Arctic darkness of winter, prevalence of storms and minimal lighthouses. Richard With and his pilots simply navigated using compass and clock.

By 1896, With had even established a sports route for expeditions from Hammerfest up to Spitsbergen where he’d built a hotel. It was the same year explorer Fridtjof Nansen returned from his North Pole expedition aboard polar ship, Fram, having left Norway the same year the coastal express was established. But the fjord specialist focus remained local until early this century when Hurtigruten’s expedition ships, such as their own Fram, began venturing to Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica where Norwegian exploration has a strong history.

Since then, Hurtigruten has been ramping things up on the expedition and adventure front, and now offer more than 70 shore activities from edible, musical, natural, cultural to animal, mineral, physical, spiritual. Although the same ports are visited in both directions, it’s at different times of the day and night so excursion options vary each way. And, seasonally, everything shifts.

Harald Weinreich prefers winter when, below the Arctic Circle, “the sun is a burning fire on the sea”. He claims to have never had bad weather in both directions.

I quite like the cut of Hurtigruten’s jib – the company seems to genuinely give a ship about the environment and their society. They buy excursions and source food locally, are into energy recycling, plan to add beach clean-ups to their activities and there’s an even gender balance in managerial positions.

They’ve also worked out how passengers can explore Norway without compromising the locals’ service. Excursions like the Atlantic Road bus tour from Kristiansand to Molde, winter snowmobiling between Kjøllefjord and Mehamn or this RIB adventure from Stokmarknes simply meet up with the floating base camp at the next port.

We slip into the former fishing village of Svolvær in soggy jumpsuits well before Richard With arrives and dock in the evening shadow of the hull of Spitsbergen. Øystein Knoph calls their latest expedition ship “a devil in disguise”: the inside looks like a boutique hotel but it’s “really tough – Spits is meant for ice”. And his face and voice subtly contain what I’ve begun to recognise as deep-seated Norwegian fervour for connecting with the great outdoors.

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