Our home for thirteen nights, "Black Watch" ready for the next leg of her journey.
And the better looking members of our party...
This is what greeted us when we entered our cabin and immediately threw us into a panic. During the trip we would pass a major milestone - our fiftieth wedding anniversary. On a previous cruise we had witnessed the sort of thing that can happen if one allows Fred Olsen to become involved in such occasions: fanfares, lights flashing, bottles of champagne being piped to the table and all the waiters (some armed with tambourines!) gathering round and singing some excruciating version of an anniversary song. Not something that appeals to my curmudgeonly tendencies!
The basket was in fact something arranged by the family as a lovely surprise and not part of the Premier Fred Olsen Golden Wedding Anniversary Package (with singing waiters to appear at the appropriate time) though until the anniversary day had actually passed I was never completely sure that we would not meet that awful fate - a lingering dread that was not entirely eased by our travelling companions who pointed out all the freebies available, but swore blind, on frequent occasions, that they would never do such a thing as arrange it without our agreement.
"Or would we...?" they invariably added.
Despite this cruel mental torture, we shared the wine and canapes while passing under our magnificent new bridge for the first time. The grey skies were a disappointment and became a bit of a constant on this voyage...
...apart from an hour or two on the second day.
Our first port was Reykjavik, of which we saw little, having opted for a day long bus tour of the interior. I particularly liked our guide, who is the gentleman in the brown jacket, standing left of the boulder and the good looking woman in the turquoise fleece. He is English born but a naturalised Icelander. He succeeded in conveying his complete love of all things Icelandic as well as being erudite and well informed. From him I now know that to say, "Goodbye!" in Icelandic sounds very much like saying, "Bless!" in English.
Our first stop was the Thingvellir National Park which is situated on the Mid Atlantic Ridge - a rift which opened up to create the Atlantic Ocean. This escarpment is the eastern edge of the North American Plate which is still moving westwards a centimetre or so each year. The land to the right is completely new terrain which has welled up from the depths of the Earth's crust to fill in the gap. Further to the east is the western edge of the Eurasian Plate.
The edge of the Eurasian Plate can be dimly made out on the right of this view.
This is a very important site in the history of Iceland. People from Norway began settling in Iceland from 874 AD and the various "tribes" began meeting here, a fairly central point, from 930 AD. This governing assembly or Althing has a strong claim to be the world's first parliament and meetings continued to be held here until 1798.
The new land that fills in space between the separating tectonic plates is originally molten. The whole of Iceland is still very active with volcanic phenomena such as fumaroles, steam vents, hot springs, active volcanoes...
There are considerable areas of high volcanic plateau in Iceland with an ice sheet that feeds glaciers and powerful rivers. Where these find the edge of lava flows or basalt layers, waterfalls result which cut back into the higher ground to create a gorge.
This is Gullfoss on the Olfusa River. It is fed by glaciers as well as plentiful rainfall and is the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
There are two drops which together create a fall of around one hundred feet.
We end our first visit to Iceland (more to come...more waterfalls...more volcanic stuff...) with a view across the city of Reykjavik.
On to Greenland...
After two full days at sea the morning brings another day of grey skies but a distinct drop in temperature. A possible cause is spotted to starboard and a flurry of excitement spreads quickly around the ship. For most passengers this will be a first. I worry briefly whether the ship will remain stable with everyone leaning over the same side!
After an hour or so the glaciers become more routine and only the bigger ones are noted. I reflect that it is a good thing that the captain has not lit the last boiler, is not racing to break a record and that avoiding these things does not depend entirely on two blokes looking out from the crows nest.
Eventually the mists partly clear to reveal a bleak, mountainous landscape.
For a few moments it looks as the mists will lift completely as the mountain tops come into view with a hint of sunshine...
...but this does not last.
Black watch drops anchor in the Tasiilaq Fiord about half a mile or so from the shore. There is a moment of excitement as the anchor chain gets away from the winch crew, who have to screw down the clutch brake with all their combined strength.
Across the water is the settlement of Tasiilaq, scattered across a bare rocky hillside around a small inlet. This is the largest settlement in Eastern Greenland of something over 2000 people. There are no roads in or out. It is only accessible by air and boat and the latter for only about half the year. If bulky supplies have not been delivered by October, then the Innuit people must wait for them until the following spring
A wider view.
Getting elderly passengers ashore by tender can be tricky, but fortunately the sea was calm and this was achieved without alarm. It was cold and raining intermittently. Many of our fellow travellers walked a little way up the hill and returned on the next shuttle.
The most common sort of craft in the harbour seemed to be small fibre glass dinghies, powered by outboard motors. There were always one or two buzzing about, perhaps to visit outlying villages.
There are no trees on Greenland and the houses are colourful prefabricated structures which are insulated from the ground because this is tundra and there will be permafrost issues if the heat from the houses reaches the ground. Various modes of transport are on view.
It would seem traditional methods of moving around in winter are still employed. We were warned not to approach these huskies as they are definitely not pets.
Elsewhere we saw snowmobiles...
At the edge of the village we passed the grave yard beyond which was open country.
Climbing above the town up a river valley we encountered alpine like flowers which looked vaguely familiar. These were a sort of harebell...
and this looked like a sort of dwarf rosebay willow herb.
Apart from the tundra flora the landscape was utterly bare and empty. Once we had gone a couple of miles up the valley and beyond the range of our less adventurous fellow travellers, the silence was profound. Being so completely alone was enjoyable yet at the same time unsettling.
Perhaps not a view to dwell on for too long if suffering from a deep depression!
The smooth rounded rock is an indication that this land was recently under an ice sheet. Indeed, the Mittivakkat Glacier and associated research station are not many miles further inland
There is an austere sort of beauty in this landscape and much of it reminded me of parts of Scottland, such as Torridon or Assynt, which makes perfect sense because millions of years ago, before the Atlantic Ocean began to open up, this part of Greenland and North West Scotland were physically attached.
The vegetation has only recently begun to colonise this glaciated landscape. Twelve thousand years ago, much of Britain must have looked like this.
We had been warned that midges could be a problem - another link to Scotland - but this did not affect us at all, even though, by Scottish standards, this was ideal midgie weather, being still, humid, with an intermittent mizzle. Perhaps we were saved from such trials by the low temperature.
Midges are a problem in our own garden and no doubt in Tassiilaq also at different times of year. With future gardening in mind we bought ourselves two anti midge face veils at the Post Office/shop, plus some locally made jam which uses the bilberry like soft fruit and black currants which grow locally.
Other than wander about a bit and enjoy the views and the experience of being in a new country, there was not too much to do in Tasiilaq. Properly equipped and with more time there would be scope for fishing, mountaineering, kayaking and in winter ice climbing, cross country skiing and no doubt many other activities. Perhaps a certain amount of this goes on but it seemed to me that we were visiting a "pre tourist" settlement. We saw nothing of the "staged authenticity" that might be presented in more established tourist destinations and I rather liked it for that.
Tasiilaq seemed a little bit depressed. Perhaps the people were making themselves scarce until their temporary visitors had gone away, but nothing much seemed to be going on. Any activity seemed to be based around the harbour, but little enough was apparent. One unsettling sight was the occasional drunk staggering home in mid afternoon - perhaps a sign of there being a lot of unemployment.
I am not sure future visits from the likes of us will be an answer to their problems. On the other hand I enjoyed the opportunity to experience, however briefly, the utter stillness and silence of the surrounding wilderness.
The Black Watch reversed course and we set off back to Iceland, a two days' sail. Unfortunately it took a little longer than that. The ship had to fight its way through an easterly gale which at its worst was Force 10. The sea was extremely rough with the waves marching towards us in menacing walls of steely grey water. I rather enjoyed it.
This was not true of about thirty percent of our fellow travellers who were not seen in the dining room for two days.
Skuas were almost always visible from our cabin, flying parallel to our course, skimming above the water in the troughs and rising over the tops.
This picture was taken as the storm raged outside, When you think about it, there is something bizarre about being cocooned in a little bubble of luxury, amidst extreme and dangerous conditions. We are making an, essentially, pointless journey, separated from the deadly real world by a few millimetres of steel.. It reminds me of camping somewhere quite wild and lying warm and dry while listening to the wind and the rain battering the roof of the tent - security spiced by awareness of its precariousness!
Of course, for some of our number, the thought of the ship succumbing to the conditions and sinking into the cold, still - especially the still - depths, was an option not entirely lacking in merit, at the time...
In order not to batter itself to pieces against the stormy seas, Black Watch had to slow down and was late arriving back in Iceland at the northern port of Akureyri. There was a problem with berths and time slots for taking passage up the long but narrow Akureyri Fiord. Changes have to be made to our planned itinerary and we have to lose one of our shore excursions. This was our day in the small East Iceland port of Eskifjordur which we would have spent on a fairly demanding guided walk...."Not all bad then!" a less active traveller was heard to remark.
Meanwhile there is time to admire another waterfall on our shortened visit to Akureyri. This is Godafoss (Falls of the Gods) so called because in the year 1000AD Thorgeir Thorkelsson, the Speaker of the Icelandic Parliament decided that Iceland should become a Christian country. To mark this change he had the statues of the old pagan gods thrown over the falls.
The falls have a pleasing horseshoe shape.
The glacial river, called Skjalfandafljiot, flows across a flat lava field which solidified about seven thousand years ago. The falls mark the edge of this flow of lava and have eaten back into it leaving a gorge about two miles long.
I would guess top right is where the pagan statues got chucked from...
As a student, I often worked in a steel works during the summer and parts of Iceland's raw volcanic landscapes brought back some memories - rising steam, sulphurous smells. strangely coloured pools of chemical soup, the slag tips that look exactly the same as cooled lava.
Fascinating, but not exactly beautiful. One could shoot a Star Trek episode here...
In Iceland such features are widespread and provide a cheap and efficient source of energy. There are power stations generating electricity from geothermal steam..
And hot water from underground heats the houses.
There are many active volcanoes in Iceland, some very large. These smaller cones are dormant, but not extinct.
These lava flows were all quite recent and reminded me again of the slag tipping at App. Frod. Steelworks.
There is much to enjoy on a cruise. A lot of the credit for that goes to the crew and other staff. They are extremely professional in their work and help to create a great atmosphere. I also suspect that they keep files on the passengers which are passed from ship to ship. On our Baltic cruise on Boudicca, our waiters took to addressing me as "Sir Dave" which I took to be a sort of good humoured, gentle mockery and did not object. You will never guess how our waiter on the Black Watch, right from our first meal, began addressing me...!
It also amused some of the party!
Two full days at sea followed, during which we followed our temporary, lotus eating lifestyle, punctuated by long coffee breaks...
...and walks round the deck. Five circuits are equivalent to one mile which is quite enjoyable though it does mean one is disturbing the same persons every few minutes.
We awoke early one morning to find the ship was still and we could hear traffic. Looking out from our cabin we could see that we had tied up in the centre of Alesund, a very pleasant little town some way north of Bergen.
Looking round from our balcony to the right, we could see the restaurant on the top of Mount Aksla and this became our destination for the morning's activities.
We rejected the steep direct ascent and found a gentler route from behind.
By pooling our resources we were just about able to afford a coffee in the cafe (this is Norway remember!) and enjoy the truly splendid views of this delightful little town.
The town is spread out over a series of islands near the mouth of the fiord.
Black Watch was not the only ship visiting Alesund and is rather dwarfed by the "block of flats" ahead of her.
...and toward the open sea - the views were stunning.
In 1904 a disastrous fire destroyed much of the town and it was rebuilt in an art nouveau style which gives the centre a pleasing unity.
After returning to the ship for lunch we visited the Atlantic Sea Park for the afternoon. This is imaginatively built into the coast using the sea itself and incorporating the cliffs and headlands into its structure.
Watching various guests being fed is the main attraction...perhaps I should add that the fish are being fed by the diver and not with the diver...
...with the added bonus of the surrounding landscape.
Black Watch's departure from Alesund was slightly hampered by a becalmed sailing boat race.
Next morning found us seventy miles from the open sea at the pretty village of Olden.
We had opted for a bus tour and walk to the Briksdal Glacier. This took us inland passing the beautiful, turquoise coloured Olden Lake.
An hour's gentle walking took us past some spectacular waterfalls...
Then the glacier came into view with a vividly coloured small lake nestling at its foot.
About a half mile from this spot we had passed a sign indicating that the glacier had reached as far as that place only seventy years ago. Global warming has its effects! Indeed, someone who had visited this site before said that a few years ago the glacier came down to the lake. In a few years, it may not even be visible from here.
Official fiftieth wedding anniversary photo!
This valley leads up to a plateau that is still occupied by an ice sheet, which feeds this valley glacier and others.
On the ride back to the ship we stopped to look at a different glacier which flows from the same ice field. Just visible with the eye of faith...
That was the end of our shore excursions. Two nights and a whole day's sailing would bring us back to Rosyth. The workers at the tiny port form a sort of honour guard to wave us off, accompanied by loudspeakers blasting out Rod Stewart's "We are sailing."
Or maybe they were celebrating that we were leaving...
I was sad to leave. Norway is quite lovely (and have I mentioned it is expensive!)
We even got a rare glimpse of the sun as we made our way down the fiord to the open sea.
All that remained was for us to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary with friends, over a special dinner. Please God without singing waiters... I thought they took the news that it was their turn to pay surprisingly well!
The slightly tense expression, on what should be a very happy occasion, (after all, I am not picking up the bill) is due to the lingering fear that there is a plot to surprise us. Being paranoid does not mean the waiters have not been rehearsing their anniversary song!
One final question: why do cabin stewards do this to ladies nightwear...?