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On top of the world

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MyDiscoveries 15 January 2018

Janeece Keller takes a trip to the other side of the planet, to immerse herself in a whitewashed world where king crabs, reindeers and the Northern Lights reign.

I’m standing on the snow, in more layers of clothing than I ever thought it possible to climb into, with eyebrows and lashes that are white, and frozen solid. It looks as though I’ve wholly embraced an obese Ice Queen Pierie doll look, or I’m going to Mardi Gras. More interesting though, is the fact that the snow in front of my boots has turned a bright blue.

Moments before, our guide (a big burly man without as much clothing as me) pulled the biggest crab-pot I’ve ever seen out of a hole in the ice. He winched it up from down below and up came a mass of gangly, spikey crab legs, poking every which way. Then he’d pulled a crab out of the mass and held it up — the long legs flapping and snapping in the air. The crab’s reddish brown body is the size of my head (the carapace, as its called, can reach 28cm in width), and its legs are over 1.5 metres long. My little group all stared, gobsmacked, as he asked: “Why do you think it’s called the King Crab?”

He was met with a chorus of similar guesses: “Because they’re so huge? Enormous? Massive? Gigantic?” “Because they’re delicious?” I’d ventured.

Shaking his head, he dropped the crab, whipped out a hunting knife and stabbed it through the shell. Out poured the crab’s blood. “Because they have blue blood,” he said, smiling at us as we all stared at the snow turning blue.

So begins my first ‘evening’ in Norway, where my friend and I are staying in igloos at the Kirkeness Snow Hotel, 15km from the Russian border. We’d travelled there on the Hurtigruten mail and delivery ship that traverses the coastline from Burgen to Kirkenese, after flying in from Oslo.

The hotel proudly claims that no matter what the temperature outside, the igloo rooms remain at a ‘stable’ -4 degrees celcius. That’s actually fine, compared it to the typical -30 degrees outside.

We made the trip during the Norwegian winter so it’s dark 24/7. It’s not easy to regulate your body clock, but it’s a surreal winter wonderland experience, and the snow hotels are as extraordinary as they appear in the photos. We also figured we had more chance of seeing the Northern Lights in the month when the sun up here doesn’t set. The sense of wilderness stretching out endlessly around you every moment of your waking hours is like being in the world of Narnia.

After the crabs are bundled up, we ride on skidoos back to a remote dining hut where there’s no power or running water, and are informed that when we see steam pouring from the windows of the cooking hut, our King Crab dinner is ready. After the steam makes itself known, we’re given sewing shears to break our crabs up, and then hungrily dine on fresh bread, crab and wine, all by candlelight. Perfect.

On our third day, we’re dogsledding — myself as the passenger and my friend as musher — and I look up to see a strange deep olive green light beginning to appear in the sky. We halt and stare. “Are they the lights? The Northern Lights?” we both wonder out loud, staring.

Bands of deep green move across the sky, but it’s not easy to pick them out. We take off again, feeling a little let down if that was all that we’d see of the Northern Lights. All the talk about it being epic and phenomenal. We’re silently dismayed as we head back home.

Returning to the hotel however, crowds of guests are gathered outside with cameras set up, sighing and talking excitedly, and as soon as we see the Northern Lights through the camera lens, we see the bright green and shades of pink that we’d seen so many times in photographs and films. Gradually, they grow in intensity that night, but we still don’t see anything that blows us away.

On New Years Eve, we go ‘chasing the lights’ (as they say) in a bus with a photographer, and it all happens. The Northern Lights put on a spectacular show that leave us all breathless — dancing and sweeping across the sky as we all stare in complete awe at the live painting being created before us.

During our stay we visit a reindeer farm, feeding the elegant yet gangly creatures. The reindeer in these parts are owned by Norway’s (Indigenous) ‘Sami’ people. There are a range of tours where visitors can learn about Sami culture, enjoy a traditional meal, learn to lasso a reindeer, and go reindeer sledding. Although, after getting to know the funny creatures, that love putting their hoofs up on a fences and popping their heads up to say hello, it’s quite disconcerting, at first, to be offered reindeer Carpaccio, reindeer steak and reindeer stew. Although with that experience under your belt, it’s easy to empathise with how foreigners feel in Australia when they’re cajoled into eating kangaroo for dinner.

A week later, my friend and I take the mail ship back down the coast and fly to Oslo for our flight back home. As we cross the airport’s tarmac – all but lost under a seemingly endless surface of smooth white — the sky begins to come alive with bands of colours as bright as the Northern Lights — hot pinks, oranges and bright yellows building up into a sunrise we’ll never forget.

We walk slowly, reluctantly, out to the plane and the colours continue to intensify as we climb aboard, take a seat and put on our seatbelts.

We’re still sighing out icy streams of frozen breath as the plane takes off over the wilderness surrounding Oslo. Looking out across that vast space, the sky in molten hues above it, it’s easy to really feel it — to really grasp the idea that we’re on the top of the world.