Exploring darkness in the polar night – Tromsø, Norway

I went to Norway for an environment that made me feel small and insignificant. To be awed and inspired, to be close to the edge of the earth. Think that’s a pretty niche travel requirement? Let me explain.

I’m obsessed with landscapes of extremes, so far mostly deserts. This time, I wanted to try something different and visit the arctic circle, the most northerly of circles of latittude surrounding the north pole. I live in a big western European city, where we don’t see many extremes of weather. It sometimes feels, as a newly minted adult (I say newly, but I’ve had some years’ practice) that the world is on my shoulders. The city can be a fast-paced place of ego, where things happen mostly if you make them. It’s easy to get stuck in my head, stuck in a state of anxiety about some thing or another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Also, coming from the Southern Hemisphere, I still struggle with the deep darkness of a northern winter. I wanted to see what made people tick this far north, where lettuce certainly doesn’t grow all year round, and where for a couple months per year the sun barely tops the horizon all day.

The polar circle

When we landed in the dark on a Saturday night in the tiny Tromsø airport, my husband hilariously but also pretty aptly asked me ‘WHERE ARE WE?!’ It felt like in the three hour flight from Gatwick we had truly flown into the unknown. We went straight to the local supermarket, which I guess is a pretty brave choice, and stocked up on groceries for our Airbnb. A search for dairy-free milk involved desperate comedy-sketch levels of Google translating.

Dressing on morning one to head into town involved base, mid, top layers; two, three pairs of socks, and outdoor gear. Having to succumb to the weather gave me a vulnerability that felt different. This wasn’t scared walking home alone at night in the city, this was an adversary you could prepare for but that could also beat you with no effort.

We came to Tromsø at the tail end of the polar night, when at full midday the sun barely makes it over the top of the peaks surrounding the island Tromsøya that the city sits on. This daylight is a suspended dawn of blue light leading directly to a soft bubblegum dusk sky. 3pm felt like dinner time, 7pm felt like bed time. We were reduced to basic survival (millenial style, á là Airbnb): eating when we needed fuel, sleeping when our bodies told us to.

View from the harbour of Tromsø

We arrived with a far smaller itinerary than normal, I had very few things I wanted to actually do in Tromsø. I wanted to see the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), go see a nearby ice hotel, try spot a reindeer, and clear my head for the rest of the time.

The second night, I booked a last minute Aurora tour with Brynjar from Arctic Breeze. On the night of Imbolc, the Pagan festival of light in the darkness of winter, we saw the most fantastic display of lights within barely half an hour of leaving Tromsø itself. Surely this was not possibly real, I am still having to check the photos our guide took to remind myself. We celebrated with hot chocolate around a fire on a fjord beach, under the dull remains of the lights. The experience certainly felt real when the -15’C temperatures started settling in to our boots and our bones.

Photos from our tour taken by the guide, Brynjar

The following day we got on a bus south towards the Tromsø Ice Domes, a new-ish ice hotel in a valley around an hour away. As we peeled away from the steaming fjords (cold arctic air hitting the relatively warm water) and headed inland, we watched with grim glee as the temperature display on the bus dropped from -12’C. When we arrived at the ice domes, the reading was -18’C.

Inside the hotel

The tour was lovely, so was sitting in the ‘warm dome’ afterwards with soup and spirits (Glenfidditch for him, Baileys for me). The arctic cold was really starting to set in, and the novelty wear off. As the sun begn it’s descent below the mountaintops, the temperature dropped further. If I remember anything of this trip, it is the sudden change from hospitable to the opposite. My phone died, my digital camera died. My jacket zipper broke clean off, like when movie crooks break into a safe by freezing and smashing the lock. Any exposed skin, like my hands desperately trying to take last pictures, felt the burn of near-frostbite in just a few minutes. On the bus home, the temperature reading was -25’C. I could definitely believe it.

Wednesday brought the first overcast skies; one day of snowfall. Wednesday also brought on a cold I’d been fending off for weeks with Vitamin C. We stayed in and claimed a snow day with endless Netflix.

Snow in our neighbourhood of Breivika

Waking the day after a snow storm is so exciting still – although I’m sure the novelty must wear off. We took the Fjellheisen cable car to the top of a peak overlooking Tromsø. What looked from the bottom to be quite a height turned out to be the first of many small peaks towards the true summit of Mt Storsteinen. We walked to the next peak in single file through the shin-deep snow, falling in to the Fjellheisen summit canteen after for a burger and pints of pilsner.

View from the top of the Fjellheisen cable car

The Arctic Cathedral near the base of the cable car

It’s funny how pushing the body in the cold takes so much more out of you. We joked every night that the reason we couldn’t keep our eyes open at 8pm was because of ‘all the fresh air’ breathed that day. It’s true though; the tap water tasted glacial, the air a special brand of crisp. Facial moisturing started taking on as many layers as my socks had, the cold a different level to any I’ve felt before. Traffic lights changed especially quickly for pedestrians – almost to get them in out of the cold quicker.

Ski jump towers at the University of Tromsø

What will I remember the most? The lights from Tromsdalen twinkling at us from across the water. The taste of beer (we had to sample all of it of course), the sighting of reindeer on the university campus. The cut of the cold, the warmth on getting in to the flat, how kind the people were. The feeling of being somewhere different to anything else I’ve experienced, and the feeling of being ever so slightly changed and not knowing quite why.

Desert Dreaming: My Arid Landscape Bucket List (part two)

Check out part one of my favourite desert landscapes that I have, and hope to visit!

 

Arabian: Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wadi Rum Tourism

Around two hours south of the famous ancient city of Petra is the Wadi Rum Protected Area. Moon Valley, a site within the conservation area, is so-called because of its remote and extreme conditions. The seemingly endless peaks and crags present plenty of inspiration for activities. Imagine hiking the same paths that Lawrence of Arabia did years ago?

I want to sleep beneath an endless sky in an authentic Bedouin Camp, and round off an enlightening trip with sand boarding and a camel safari. Wadi Rum looks like the quintessential desert experience.

Stay at: Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp


Atacama: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

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I have always wanted to visit the Atacama – it is the world’s driest desert after all! No bucket list would be complete without some superlative, and the Atacama really seems to be one of the last uncharted places left.

When I go, I want to see flamingoes, vicunas (relation of the llama) salt pans, pastel-coloured hills, and miles of endless expanse. Due to the altitude and lack of pollution, star gazing will be the ideal nighttime activity – no effort required!

Stay at: Hotel Poblado Kimal


Sahara: Morocco, Northern Africa

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Of course, it’s the SAHARA, it has to be on this list. It was the first desert I learned about, and one that still carries so much intrigue to this day. The Sahara is one of the largest desers in the world, covering a large portion of Northern Africa, so provides a near endless selection of ways to enjoy the landscape. My dream thing to do in the Sahara? Stay at a real-life desert oasis by night and wonder the dunes by day.

Stay at: Riad Nomad


Sonoran: Phoenix, USA

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Of course no desert list would be complete without a real wild west backdrop – the saguaro cactus-lined Sonoran desert. Extending through Arizona to Northern Mexico (including the Baja California peninsula), the Sonoran desert has always been a dream destination for me. Unlike a lot of other deserts on this list, it is not completely desolate, but actually full of flora and small fauna. This is the place to hike all day, and camp in a secluded spot at night.

Stay at: The Wigwam Hotel if you don’t fancy a tent!


Viana: Boa Vista, Cape Verde

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A bit of a rogue and unexpected entry, but one that coveniently combines tropical sandy beaches and barren African desert in one handy trip. Off the coast of northwest Africa, a bit further afield than the Canary Islands lie the Cape Verde islands. Unspoiled scenery and an eclectic Creole-Portuguese-African culture make this a little gem, only around four hours’ flight from London. It’s like our own little Caribbean!

Stay at: Spinguera Eco Lodge

Spotlight: A day in and around Joshua Tree, CA.

Read more about our stay in Palm Springs here.

 

During our stay in the desert of southern California, we spent a day further in the Mojave desert. Driving down the Twentynine Palms Highway, winding up to higher ground, the dark grey sky sat heavy on the horizon. This was the first day on the SoCal leg of out trip that it really felt like winter, it lent a different quality to the desert landscape than one normally sees in photos. This area is of interest ecologically, a place where two desert landscapes blur. It shoulders where High Mojave and the Low Colorado deserts merge. This strange feeling sits low to the earth here, the jarring and contrasting landscapes provide a true otherworldy experience. This small part of the world has inspired some of our favourite music: desert rock, Josh Homme, and U2’s eponymous album. Rancho de la Luna is one of the recording havens for many artists; John Lennon and Jim Morrison also both recorded music in this corner of wilderness.

The High Desert

 

 

First stop was coffee at Cafe Frontier in Yucca Valley for two flat whites and two buttery chunks of coconut-oat flapjack. Attached to the cafe was Hoof and the Horn, a store with bohemian homeware and western-inspired clothing, where we wondered around with our coffees. I bought a beautiful handwoven throw that I was willing to forgo a few clothing items in order to fit into our case. This shop seemed to embody our spiritual home, a far cry from our current past-paced city existence.


Shop goals

Empty intersection in Yucca Valley

‘They say that this part of the desert has a ‘two or three year rule’

 

Driving off the highway up into the hills, we headed for Pioneertown. Historically created as a wild west film set, the ‘town’ still operates today with a saloon, motel and selection of small stores. Still, the heavy grey sky loomed over us, a reminder that most people were home with their families during this time of limbo between Christmas and New Year. I forgot my jacket in the car when we got out at Pioneertown, I could feel the ghostly desert cold seep into my bones and we cut our stroll short, in favour of the warmth of our car.


Above: Entry to Pioneertown; Below: Pioneertown Motel

 

Joshua Tree National Park welcomed us, and our little jeep wound through the nearly empty roads. Getting out several times for photo stops, the silence almost became the third passenger on our drive.


Joshua Tree N.P Entrance

Above and below: desolation in Joshua Tree

 

 

Imagining what it would be like to visit in the height of summer, at first I felt let down that we were missing that true ‘desert’ experience due to the rain. However, we really had the place to ourselves, and barely bumped into a hiker or cyclist the whole drive through the park. This in a way was more special than seeing it properly, a desert is inhospitable and empty whether it is dry or wet.


Climbing in flipflops

 

They say that this part of the desert has a ‘two or three year rule’: that after this time the extreme conditions either spit you out or change you forever. Regardless of outcome you will never be the same after spending time in a place like this. I now often think of this in relation to living in London, of course a different experience, however such extremes to pace of life will either change you or make you leave. When I travel, I always aim to completely immerse myself into the area, and mainly visit places I could see myself living in. It’s easy to see where I fit in to a landscape, the footprints left behind, but it’s often only when one is long home that the imprint of a place recently left can be felt. Such was the mark Joshua Tree left on me.


The unbelievable luck of seeing an almost double rainbow in the desert

Our way home wound past Desert Christ Park, a sculpture garden on the hills overlooking Yucca Valley. The modest park was created by Antone Martin, in the height of the late 1940s Cold War tension, and was dedicated on Easter Sunday 1951. Antone’s hope was to inspire world peace in a time of fear and war. All the statues embody this desperation and unease.


Meanwhile, for us night was fast falling, and the grey clouds were slowly turning to indigo. Being the only people moving for miles, we walked trough the white statues alone and in silence.


All above: Desert Christ Park

The view to Yucca Valley

 

Back at our kitcsh Palm Springs hotel, we were too tired for anything but some low-key pasta and hotel room margaritas. Early the next day, we would be leaving for L.A. Tomorrow we would leave behind this haven of bandits and dreamers, anarchists, bohemians and loners.


Mairead Daly, 2017

High Desert: Palm Springs, USA

Make sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this road trip

 

The first morning in Palm Springs, I knew in my bones I was somewhere else. The light was so different, a hazy glow, that even going through everyday routines felt foreign. Even on the stroll for breakfast and the first coffee of the day, the street seemed to be covered by a halo. Breakfast was from Koffi, an egg-ham-cheese bagel for him, and a fruit parfait for her. Even in late December, the weather was mild enough for a t-shirt.

Koffi coffee

Houses on E. Canyon Drive

Tiredness from the previous day’s mammoth drive, we stayed local and ran some errands. Ed enjoyed the laundromat, the waiting room peppered with heckles from locals aimed at the political coverage on the small television.

At the laundromat

That night we ate at King’s Highway, the restaurant at Ace Hotel. We ate real-deal tacos, and had fabulous cocktails (including a spicy chilli margarita).

King’s Highway at Ace Hotel

Holiday season in the desert

The following day, we ventured south-east towards the Salton Sea. First stop, Shields Date Garden for a famous date shake. I would recommend sharing one with at least one other person, it is huge, thick and heavenly.

The route to the Painted Canyon

Shields Date Garden

At midday, we headed further south-east through citrus grove after citrus grove, the fresh sweet scent lingering in the air. It amazed me to see such vibrant life erupting suddenly from the bone-dry ground. Around two kilometres of dirt road led to the mouth of the Painted Canyon, in the Painted Hills. It wasn’t hard to find the Ladder Canyon, a picturesque slot canyon waving and weaving through the ochre-red rock, following the carving force of water years before. I walked, slow as a trickle of water, running my hand along the curve of the canyon.

The mouth of the canyon trail

Slot canyon path

The namesake ladder

After navigating our way safely through the canyon (someone else was not as lucky and was being airlifted out with a broken leg), we ate pre-packed Reuben sandwiches from Vons supermarket and drove to a destination beyond the scope of our satnav: Salvation Mountain. We reached the nearest town, Niland, barely a one-horse town, and had to just drive into the desert, hoping we could find our destination. And find it, we did.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain

The view from Salvation Mountain

 

Cirrus clouds flecked the sky, the sun sat low in its winter position in the sky. Looking around from where I stood, all I could see was complete desolation. It was a fantastic feeling. We continued along a dirt road through Slab City, an off-grid community of activists and anarchists, to East Jesus. As the sun slowly lowered in the sky, shadows brought all the sculptures to life in a completely different way. The sound of gunshots peppered the air and, not sure if they were a threat or not, the vibe felt well and truly wild. My imagination ran wild thinking of what life was like here, hidden deep in the desert, free of legal and social convention. On the drive home, the haze-covered, malodorous Salton Sea lay to our left and a mile-long cargo train racing us to our right. Phone batteries dead, we turned on the local radio station; Alice in Chains, Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath blaring out the windows as we drove into the fading sun.

All above: East Jesus

 

On our final day, slightly margarita-hungover and dreading the impending end of our trip, we spent time in the Moorten Botanical Garden admiring the cacti under a heavy grey sky. Hummingbirds darted through the air, jumping from leaf to leaf. An empty semi-circular arrangement of chairs lined a lonely glade under a giant aloe, and I thought about whose wedding it might be arranged for.

Top and bottom, Moorten Botanical Garden

 

 

Check out my follow-on spotlights on Yucca Valley/Joshua Tree and Los Angeles, the finale of out trip.

Where Snow Meets Desert: Lake Tahoe to Death Valley, USA.

Part two of my USA retrospective, find part one here.

After our last photo stop, we took the route 50 perpendicular to the lake that wound through the mountains. The contrast between the thick pine forest, streams and snow of the lake basin with the desert beyond Lake Tahoe’s surrounding peaks was astounding. It somehow felt like we were either returning, or going into outer space. I couldn’t quite work out which.

In Carson City, NV, we took the route 395 headed almost due south. Anticipation and trepidation filled the air gaps in the car between us and our suitcases. As we left the relative comfort of Tahoe, we knew we would head far south, beyond our comfort zone.

The route

Where snow meets desert, Mono County.

 

The road followed California’s backbone, the Sierra Nevada mountains. We watched the landscape slowly change from snow, to the moon-like desert as traversed Mono County. I’d found another brewery for us to stop at for lunch on our journey. We turned off for June Lake, the sleepy little sister to Big Mammoth further south. June Lake Brewing was hidden deep in the little town, seemingly the only place people existed here. We ate Hawaiian Tacos at Ohanas food truck parked in the brewery lot.

June Lake Brewing against a crystal clear sky

 

Messy Hawaiian taco-eating

 

The tacos were messy but delicious, and we enjoyed a small beer in the brewery enjoying the heavy metal echoing throughout the building. We bought a few large bottles of porter, and rejoined route 395 to resume our journey.

”With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert”

The small towns of Mono then Inyo county passed by, empty motels with ‘Vacancy’ signs blowing in the wind. Luck would have us find a Starbucks in Bishop,Ca. The town was otherwise a more local affair. Towns got smaller and smaller the further we drove, and our last tough with civilisation was Lone Pine, CA where we stocked up on gasoline and water.

From Lone Pine, we forked left towards Death Valley National Park. With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert.

A glowing Sierra sunset

 

We survived multiple hairpin turns and arrived at Panamint Springs Resort, on the edge of the park – our home for the night. We foolishly had no camping supplies, and the shop had run out of sleeping bags for hire, so we donned our ski gear and sat on the picnic bench outside the tent to have one of our June Lake beers.

 

Home for the night

 

Death Valley National Park is a recognised dark sky area, and I never fully grasped how much I could see without air pollution and high-rise buildings obscuring the view. The milky way looked close enough to touch, every single star glowing as bright as the moon, and shooting stars framed our view. Road-weary, we went to bed and endured the coldest night of our lives.

An unbelievable Panamint sunrise

Before dawn the next morning, feeling fragile and ready to flee our campsite, we waited for the gas station to open for coffee and gas before hastily retreating deeper into the park. The elevation dropped and dropped with every mile driven, giving fantastic views for miles.

Waiting for the only gas station for miles to open

 

Panamint Springs general store

 

The road into the park at dawn

The descent into the heart of Death Valley

Mesquite Dunes

 

Palms outside the Furnace Creek Resort

 

We drove through the park, stopping to add our footprints to the Mesquite Dunes and later the Furnace Creek resort for a slightly bizarre and hasty breakfast. The palms outside the resort signalled that we were getting closer to our final desert destination. Leaving the heart of Death Valley behind, we headed to the deserted south. Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North America. That was a bucket-list item ticked off.

At Badwater Basin

With the end of the national park, we entered the Mojave desert. Food options were a bit grim roadside in Barstow, CA, so we bought Jerkey and Reese’s cups and pushed through exhaustion for the last of the day-long journey.

Arrival into Palm Springs

 

The tell-tale windfarm heralded our arrival into chic Palm Springs, welcome civilisation after what felt like an eternity in the vast and lonely expanse of the desert. Our hotel, a 60s-themed tiki establishment (definitely what I would consider a niche market!) had a plush king-size bed and on-site restaurant, everything one needed after a frightening frozen desert night the night before.

Death Valley made me feel small, it is so hostile that surviving there for only one day feels like an accomplishment. Watching the snow turn to sand as we covered only inches of the map of California felt like a small rebirth. Seeing the small roadside towns, the forgotten ones like Independence and Baker, CA gave me a glimpse into the victims of the American dream. The orphans left behind their glitzier cousins, where faded pitch and putt greens sat unused, and teenagers’ best prospects may be to depart for somewhere bigger.

This is the real US, no In-n-Out or flat white coffees, no Whole Foods or kale. Just real people, scratching out a living in the middle of nowhere, wathing the odd tourist pass by on the way to somewhere else.

Part 3 | Palm Springs coming soon!

A Little Bit Wild: Wilderness Festival 2017

Wilderness festival is held every summer in the rolling fields and forests of Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, UK.

Wilderness festival is perhaps the only one I know I can survive (with at least some dignity). We went last year, were completely overwhelmed by everything on offer, and resolved to do it right this year.


The swimming river
With last year’s tent (complete with little spider skeletons within) and this year’s self-inflating mattress (we splashed out) under our arms, and a cooler bag full of beer, we arrived. Thankfully, the campsite layout was familiar so we were no longer the new kids in school, and set up camp exactly where we did last year (near-but-not-too-near to the toilets). The first night, Thursday, we stayed right in our little tent and barbecued sausages sheltering under our parasol. They tasted delicious with a side of tomato salsa and a gleeful, childish sense of freedom at the prospect of the weekend in the ‘wild’.


The view from our tent
Now, I am from South Africa originally, so I’m aware that being Cotswold-adjacent is not necessarily wild. However, now I live in London, so sipping warm cider barefoot in a light drizzle was pretty out there.

With an early night the first night, we were ready for Friday. I have eliminated wheat and dairy from my diet, so Deliciously Ella’s pop-up was a safe bet as opposed to the countless ‘Bacon Buttie’ signs. Yes, there were many yoga panted, lithe and beautiful young professionals discussing the merits of almond vs. oat mylk. And yes, we were in shabby converse and vans but devoured our avocado-on-rye hungrily.


Me on a shell at a clothes stall


A talk on lonliness in literature in the Books Tent


A pop-up in the Greencraft Village

The food and clothes stalls are a kaleidoscope of noise and colour, smells and people. It sometimes feels quite strange and overwhelming being in an environment geared fully towards creating pleasure. The best food we had were the beef short rib tacos, on real-deal tacos, and buffalo wings with a tequila and blue cheese sauce, which we had to have both nights. The location of Man Meat Fire‘s food truck, at the top of the main stage hill, meant we could listen to the other acts from the comfort of a picnic table (replete with margaritas).


Tacos and hot wings at Man Meat Fire


Hip hop karaoke

On Saturday night, we watched Bonobo play the main stage under a slowly fading pink sky. It was a dreamy sight, all of us gleeful at the lack of rain originally forecasted, dancing under a nearly full moon.


Celebrating the lack of forecasted rain watching Bonobo at the mainstage.


Bonobo after night fell

Afterwards, came The Spectacle, an annual performance. This year was a bewildering light show, accompanied by an astronaut revolving above us. Saturday night was bitterly cold, the clouds we had so desperately wished away in the day now nowhere to be seen. We were glad to get into the tent that night.


A lightshow in the night
Sunday morning, we were planning a fairly early departure, and so a lot of thoughts came to me on that last stroll to Deliciously Ella’s. Afterwards, we sat under a billowing art piece, enjoying the stillness in the early morning breeze. I thought about my career, where that will take me next; about how we will continue to create our own music back home. Really though, I thought about what the festival meant to me.


Where we sat early on Sunday morning, collecting our thoughts

I thought about how crazy it seemed to me to have all these ‘city types’ retreating to a field once a year to feel free, wear glitter, and learn how to climb trees. Surely we should feel we have the same freedom the other 360 days of the year, away from the strains of a 9 to 5, gym and kids? I wondered if I had lost a bit of that side of me in the last few years.

Trying to be a more ‘responsible’ festival-goer was the most tough aspect of it for me. We were two people who ate out the whole weekend, and still generated a bag of rubbish back at the tent. It also seems slightly crazy to me to want to ‘return to nature’ but still have running water, hot showers, and fresh avocado on toast. I thought about the people who were really ‘in nature’, and not out of choice. No tent, no showers and no flat whites. It seemed a little rich of me to need to escape from a full time job, and a little flat in the heart of London, when people are looking to escape the horror and fear of a life torn apart by war.

Mostly, though, I will just take it for what it was: that we are so fortunate to be able go have a brief little break from normal, and that we need to be kinder to people in every way that we can.

Rejoice in quality time to reconnect with nature and each other, and don’t forget having a chance to do hip hop karaoke whilst sipping cider in a field.

www.wildernessfestival.com