05:17

North Cape or Bust: The road home.

The following day could not have been more different. I had tried a sightseeing flight with our hosts at the guest house the day before but a strong crosswind, showers and low cloud made it an endurance rather than a pleasure. Now there was a gentle breeze which had started to blow from the north promising the same tailwind we had enjoyed on the way up (pretty well all 1700 miles) and warm sun with only a few trace clouds to add interest to a blue sky. It turned into a day of the most beautiful flying either of us had ever experienced. Despite the weather we always fly over water in drysuits - especially as at these latitudes the sea temperature never gets much more than just cold. One of my fellow Air Squadron members had told be about the experience of trying to get into a drysuit in mid air when it appeared that a malfunctioning engine might mean an unforeseen swim in Norwegian waters. Other peoples' lessons are much less painful. On the subject of cold water, a Norwegian kitesurfing friend of mine, who lives in Tromso, goes kitesurfing in February when the water is 2 degrees. Even in a 7mm wetsuit, what is the fun in that?


The first leg was over the bleak and barren far north, over the the odd settlement that, as Bill Bryson said about Hammerfest is 'an agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here-sort-of-way."


The whole area, like Lapland in Finland which we visited last year, suffered appallingly during the war when the retreating Germans conducted a typically brutal (and pointless) scorched-earth policy, burning down villages and destroying roads and bridges in their wake. We flew over an isolated fisherman's shack near Mehamn where the entire population of women and children had managed to survive for months before food and help arrived.

As we got closer to Tromso, sea fog began to fill the fjords...


....leaving only bare peaks - some like volcanos - sticking out of the cloud.


This became increasingly unnerving as we had to refuel before the Lofoten Islands and it appeared as if every valley and airfield was fog-shrouded. Bardufoss, our inland destination, assured us they were fog-free but right until the last ten miles this seemed hardly possible. But sure enough, a big hole of green opened up showing clearly that the fog was a sea phenomenon. The final turn onto final was somewhat alarming as a flight of four military helicopters appeared unannounced on a parallel track. It was a military airfield so the Tower clearly thought that this was par-for-the-course and we needed no warning.

We refueled in the sunshine but after we had taken off and climbed to 6000ft the fog reasserted itself as we flew south-west. This time it had an almost hallucinogenic quality as it gave us the strong sensation that we were flying uphill across a vast snowfield - when we were actually flying straight and level. This was disconcerting and you get some idea of this here...


As we flew on it became apparent that the Lofotens were acting like a dam to the fog which was all on the west side of the islands leaving the sea to the east shining in the afternoon sun....


As we got closer the fog was avalanching over the mountains like a waterfall.....


Which was even more impressive from the ground.


We landed in Svolvaer which must be one of the most beautiful airfields anywhere,


And got a taxi to Henningsvaar which we had flown over on the way up and marked down for the bucket list.


 It is as charming on the ground as from the air - and reminded us of an East Coast fishing village in the US. 




Both Henningsvar and Svolvaer were the objectives of the Lofoton raids by British Commandos in early 1941 - the first strike back after the disasters of 1940. The objectives were to destroy a major source of fish oil and glycerine - and both were successful with one casualty (he shot himself by accident) and a few hundred German prisoners and local quislings. The really important outcome however, was the sinking of the armed trawler Krebs from which, as it was going down, they managed to retrieve the rotor wheels of an Enigma machine that allowed the Bletchley code breakers to make the vital breakthrough they needed. This obviously only become public many years later.

After the rather limited fare at 'the end of the world' it was nice to be back into good food - though the restaurants were all rather  similar and expensive. Expensive is a relative term in Norway where you become inured to prices that make even London look cheap. Think London plus 50%. Life in a Swiss skiing resort would be the nearest equivalent - though surprisingly aviation fuel is about 25% less than in the UK.

The next day we hired bikes and went walking - though 'walk' makes the 7 hour vertical scramble up a path that was rarely even, and often precipitous, seem easier than it was. 





We slept well.

The intention the next day was an early start, a flight to Rost, the southernmost of the Lofotens, a walk there, and then on to Alesund which would allow us to fly some more fjords and be a jumping off point for Denmark and our route home around the edge of the North Sea. Best laid plans etc.....

The first idiocy was that the bus stopped by a sign to A - that is a real place - but which, as real tourists, we had to photograph.....



But then we performed a good example of the thought experiment where you are asked (without looking at it) to draw your watch face. Everyone gets it wrong. You are then asked to look to your watch to see what a mess you made of it. You are then asked (after you've been looking at the watch face for a minute) what the time is. Everyone gets it wrong because they weren't looking at the time, only the design of the face. The technical name for this is a scatoma. In this case both of us, with photographs of the sign to A on our phones, failed to see the sign to the airport....

Ten miles later we realised our blindness and got off the bus to await the one going the other way.

By the bus stop

When we reached the airfield I found I had left my wallet on the bus which was now merrily on its way to Narvik. By the time the bus company had failed to find the wallet (it did turn up later) it was about 2pm and though we had a had a very pleasant few hours in the sunshine it meant that the day had been truncated. The flight to Rost was spectacular....



.... going past the airfield on Vaeroy which had been our original objective from Trondhiem. We realised why they had closed the airport which runs along the opposite side of the spine of this hill...


.... which even an idiot like me could see would be lethal in any crosswind. So it had proved when a Twin Otter overturned ten years ago killing a number of people.

Rost was much more like the Orkneys than Norway...

The rest of the Lofotons in the distance


... and bought to mind Bill Bryson's quip again. It is flat and its economy based on dried cod. The cod migrate from the Barents Sea to spawn between January and April - though their numbers vary every year depending on the sea's layers of temperature. They are then dried on huge racks...


...and sold as a sort of biltong which the Norwegians can't get enough of - and surprisingly nor can the Italians: 90% of Rost's catch goes to Italy. We thought it was revolting - but there you are. The Italian connection perhaps goes back to the 15th century when a Venetian nobleman was shipwrecked on the coast and spent the winter on Rost - about which he wrote one of the earliest accounts of Nordland life. Bit of a change from the Rialto...

Back at the airport (this wasn't Heathrow) we couldn't get anyone's attention so we perfected the airport entry technique that we had mastered in Lapland last year...


Pretty well randomly we selected Bronnoysund as our next and overnight stop, not least because rain was approaching from the south. The forecast didn't lie and we landed in more than a steady drizzle which turned into a downpour that would have made even Venice look dull and dismal. It certainly did nothing for Bronnoysund. 

After more work on the brakes...

My best profile....

...we set off for Ă…lesund where we anticipated spending at least one day as it finally seemed that our weather luck was running out: we lost only four days to weather in the entire trip - and this is Norway and Scotland. The skies were grey and pregnant with showers. These are normally easy to go round particularly at sea where there is no terra firma or radio masts at low level to spoil your day. Occasionally a shower would hit and, though I could see the sea clearly 700ft below, the rain would stream off the canopy making the forward view limited to say the least. These would stop almost instantaneously, giving 20 miles of visibility.


Alesund is, architecturally, a rather unusual Norwegian city in that it almost entirely burned down in 1904 and was rebuilt in the then fashionable Art Nouveau style. It is buzzy (Freshers' Week staggered on) and the centre is built round a harbour.



The next day, as promised, it poured - so we hired a car and went to see the sights from the ground, the most obvious being Geraingerfjord which is the archetypal fjord-with-the-waterfalls. In some ways the cloud and rain added to the atmosphere.


It certainly made us appreciate the enormous privilege of flying a small plane and being liberated to see this sublimely beautiful country in a way that is only possible from an aeroplane.

By this point the weather was begining to dominate our decisions as it would be very easy to get stuck for weeks on end if this year's Norwegian summer reasserted itself. The next day promised a weather window but another belt of rain was forecast to cover Scandanavia later in the week. We found that a weather app called MeteoEarth, and an aviation weather app called MetMapOrbifly, were by far and away the best for short term (24 hour) forecasts and were accurate almost to the minute. Clouds were covering the mountains inland...


... as we tracked the coast past Bergen to Stavanger which is the last city on Norway's west coast with clearing skies,


landed for fuel only and tracked out across the Scagerrak, the strait between Denmark and Norway, where, a hundred years ago this year, the Battle of Jutland took place, the last major navel engagement fought only with battleships - without aircraft carriers. It was a pyrrhic draw - but given a little more luck it could have been a decisive victory for the Royal Navy. We both thought of the ultimate fate of the German High Seas fleet, much of which is still lying at the bottom of Scapa Flow and over which we had flown only two weeks before.

The contrast between Norway and Denmark could not be more extreme. We left behind mountains that fell directly into the sea, slashed with fjords, and arrived, a hundred miles later over a coast of dunes....


...and countryside that could be in the Netherlands - flat and intensely farmed.


The body of water you can see above stretches from  coast to coast and makes north Jutland an island.

Our destination was Herning, not chosen for its topographical interest....


...but on the basis that it was the only airfield open that late on a Saturday night. We had a friendly welcome from the parachute club...

Our friend Fillip - 18 and already a pilot and training to be a commercial pilot

...and spent a day of videos on the ground surrounded by thunderstorms (not condusive to aviation happiness) planning to fly out the next day for something of a marathon around the North Sea and home. We set off amid showers down the Danish coast...


...of sandbanks and dunes and across the Elbe estuary to track the Frisian Island that form an insular barrier from the North Sea coasts of Germany and Holland. We landed on Nordenay - German - and went for a long walk along the beach...


...which, believe it or not, is a nudist beach. Louis and I had spent a short time last summer on Langog next door - which is as strange as its name: we both agreed that it was a mixture of the Witterings and The Truman Show. The islands, and the sheltered, shallow stretch of water between them and the mainland have their own beauty...


We were now on a roll and stopped twice in Holland for R&R before the final push from the Belgian border to home. The continental coast is no beauty but as you transit the Dover straight you get a strong sense of geography as history (such a short stretch of water, such different paths). Also, when you cross the south coast England, of what a beautiful island we are so fortunate to inhabit.

Beachy Head: 'this sceptred isle set in a silver sea'

We approached our strip in Somerset with the sun in our eyes. Thinking of the dodgy brakes, I landed much further back than I would normally do to give myself added stopping space (slaloming works wonders, as in skiing) and as the main gear touched there was an almighty bang - but the landing continued without hitch. We had hit - without damage - a metal irrigation pipe that had been laid across the runway and which we had not seen in the low sun. If we had touched down a few yards earlier and the nose strut had taken the impact, the outcome would have been expensive - at the very least. How ironic it would have been to fly 3700 nautical miles (4270 miles) - and smash the plane up in the last 200 yards....


But how lucky we have been - and what beautiful, remote and unspoilt places we have seen and hospitable people we have been able to meet - all in the crowded place that is Western Europe. 

 
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