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In the first of our bi-monthly “TBS Travelogues,” Lizzie O’Neill takes us north…like WAY north…to the Arctic Circle – the land of plentiful reindeer, little daylight and absolute cold.
Picture yourself on top of a dark and icy mountain in the middle of the night when the temperature is -20C.
Sounds crazy doesn’t it?
Regardless, the Northern Lights of the Arctic Circle is truly a bucket list must with spectacular views and perfect Kodak moments.
I traveled to the Finnish part of the Arctic Circle to a village called Saariselkä, a popular tourist destination. Saariselkä is a short flight from Helsinki or a long bus trip from the capital. Having signed up for this trip with a number of friends from the Swedish college I was attending, I knew very little about the logistics of my trip but was sold on the idea of seeing the Northern Lights and participating in a variety of activities the area offered, including skiing, husky dog sledding, snow shoeing, and eating reindeer! As my trip was directed to accommodate student budgets it should come as no surprise that I took the long bus trip from Helsinki to Saariselkä.
I arrived at Helsinki airport on a cold late November night, having flown from Sweden. Just before midnight, the bus departed, bound for Saariselkä. A German woman who introduced herself as our group leader got on the microphone and informed us to get comfortable as this would be a 12-hour, all-night bus trip. Wearing jeans, a jumper, knee-high boots and a bag at my feet with a hat, scarf and gloves, and cradling a thick coat, I knew that getting comfortable was going to be tough. I’m sure anyone who has flown economy can understand how difficult it is to sleep whilst sitting up, but imagine yourself in a narrower seat that does not recline and with a loud engine as background noise.
About two hours into the drive, the roads began to get windier and narrower. The bus driver sped along as thick snow fell covering the road and windscreen. There were no street lights or any signs that humanity existed along these distant ways – no houses, cars, cafés, or petrol stations. As I couldn’t get to sleep, I decided to listen to music on my phone and noticed that there was no signal…yikes! With a thermometer reading that the outside temperature was a not-so-balmy -15C, I quickly realised that if we broke down or the bus crashed we faced certain death – if not on impact, then from freezing.
Thankfully, as I’m clearly here to tell the tale, there was no crash or mechanical issues and we made it, a little tired but unharmed. I arrived at Rauna Wildlife Park where the German group leader decided to inform us that the temperature had dropped to -18C and, in order to avoid hypothermia, we must dress appropriately. With nowhere to change and confident that my attire would suffice I stepped out of the bus with only my face and long hair exposed to the elements. I learnt that it really didn’t matter how much clothing I had on, I was still going to be cold. I managed to make it to the polar bear enclosure at which point a friend pointed out the state of my hair. As a natural brunette, I am happy with my hair colour but the weather had aged me, with my hair frozen and a white/grey colour.
My fellow-travellers suggested that I had morphed from a young student into a grandma in no time at all.
I pushed myself to see the mink, brown bear and wolverine, however I was disappointed with the wolverine and its lack of resemblance to Hugh Jackman! I went inside to a heated café and learnt the perils of literally thawing out. As I slipped my hot chocolate I noticed drops of water dripping onto the table. My hair had returned to its natural state and was now soaking wet. I had gone from granny to drowned rat. Even more unfortunate was when I eventually left the café and braved the cold with wet hair.
My second attempt at leaving the confines of a heated environment was to go husky dog sledding. Having done this before in Italy I was prepared for the adrenaline rush that it is. For those that have seen the movie Eight Below the experience is quite similar except the husky dogs are a slightly different breed that don’t go as fast as racing dogs. The experience allows you to take the reigns of the sled and be pulled along by six to eight huskies, or, if you’re less adventurous you can be guided along in the comfort of the sleigh and wrapped in a blanket. Able to do both, I was propelled through the snow at high speeds whilst turning in between trees. It was truly a rush perfect for the adrenaline junky!
If not for the snow activities, the Northern Lights are a perfectly good reason for an Australian to travel to the Arctic Circle. There are certain times of the year when the glittering colours of this amazing phenomena are brighter and more luminous, with a greater variety of colours in the sky. As a tip to those venturing to see them, make sure you come armed with a good camera and not just your iPhone. These lights can only be captured by a camera with a sophisticated lens, otherwise your photos will be nothing more than a black blur. The best time to see the Northern Lights is at 11pm, and climbing up to a high point, such as a mountain, will give you the best view.
Making the mistake of trusting my iPhone, I only have the memories of what I witnessed. I looked on and saw people who had obviously done a fair amount research before travelling and came equipped with a tripod and bag containing different lenses. However, their photo opportunities were limited by the need to take off their gloves to fiddle with the camera. With such cold temperatures, you can only take your gloves for about 10 seconds before you begin to feel sharp pains through your hands before they become numb.
Having feasted visually on the Northern Lights, in an attempt to be adventurous I decided to similarly take on the local cuisine – reindeer. OK, to be honest it wasn’t that adventurous, it wasjust deer. Don’t panic, Rudolf was not slaughtered for consumption! Having never had deer before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It came with gravy, berries and mashed potato. It is a popular dish in northern Finland as it is cheap and readily available. Every restaurant and café has it on the menu. The taste of the deer reminded me of a kebab. It was quite salty and the potato mash and berries were needed. I highly recommend it.
After spending a number of days in the Arctic Circle it was time to leave Saariselkä and face the dreaded long bus ride back to Helsinki. On the way, we stopped at the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. The village is every child’s fantasy. Constructed to look exactly like the North Pole with a real Finnish Santa included, you can get a photo with him for the pricey cost of 40 Euros. Clearly Santa believes in capitalism! He even has elves running about and reindeer! The village is quite kitsch with a life size igloo, large snow men, Christmas lights in every tree, and, of course, a Christmas soundtrack playing all-year round. If one day is not enough in this Christmas jungle, they even have accommodation in the Snowman World Igloo hotel, where you can stay in a room made completely out of snow and ice.
Temperatures can drop to -30C inside the igloo.
All in all, my experience in the Arctic Circle was certainly memorable and I would recommend that anyone who is thinking of going should absolutely do it. It is a bizarre experience for any Aussie used to large quantities of sunlight, but is a unique one and allows you to watch the sunrise and sunset every day in the late morning and early afternoon. Be warned though, the lack of sunlight plays havoc with your appetite and your circadian rhythms as you will feel like dinner at 4pm and bedtime at 7pm – which makes it hard to stay up to 11pm to see the Northern Lights, by which time it will feel more like two or three in the morning.
This out-of-whack 24-hour cycle will mean that if you can stay up to watch the Northern Lights it will make you feel like you have pulled an all-nighter – but the amazing display that awaits you is more than worth it.