Sunday, 17 May 2020

Isles of mystique and Adventure

      Even if you leave – your roots will remain. Lofoten proverb

From the deck of MS Bodø, ploughing through the Norwegian Sea, I watch troll-like mountains form an uncompromising barrier. They belong to Norway’s Lofoten islands, a name associated with the summer midnight sun, abundant cod fisheries, unbelievably picturesque villages, adventure tourism, and a bicycle journey offering an extravagance in grandeur.

The typically archipelago landforms, joined by bridges or tunnels, extend like a giant arm over 100 kilometres from Norway’s fjord-indented western coastline. Upon the isles thousands of pointed rock and snow peaks rise vertically to form a tortured alpine spine – the Lofoten Wall.

The seascapes and landforms suggest an isles where mystique thrives. Myths preceding the Viking Age (eighth to eleventh century) tell of an agreeable people, the hyperborean, amongst them the mother of the Greek God Apollo. Other myths tell of beautiful wicked women adept in the art of sorcery. 

Lofoten is also the birth place of the contemporary balladeer Kari Bremness whose haunting songs of travel have captured the hearts of audiences in Europe and Japan.

The ship slows. People are shouting ``we’re here.’’ I find Haruko, my cycling partner, and we fall in line with others descending steel stairways to the vehicle deck.  A gentle bump on the quayside is followed by the frenetic rattle of machinery. We merge with the scramble of cars and campervans escaping under the gaping bows.   

Our three-hour ferry sailing has brought from Bodø to Moskenes.

Lofoten is immediately different. Wedged between pointed mountains and a serene ocean, diminutive pockets of land provide home for a sparse population proudly calling themselves Lofoteners.

Traditionally cod fishermen and their families, they live in unpretentious, albeit eye-pleasing, villages of colourful wood dwellings. Their red-painted fishing shacks (rorbu cabins) crowd the shoreline so closely they are partially supported on piles embedded in the sea.

A leisurely six-kilometres of pedalling takes us to the fishing village Å (pronounced Or) at the southern extremity of European Highway 10. Despite being cocooned within the Arctic Circle – approximately 66 degrees north – the July day is warm. On a grassy knoll above a rocky shore we pitch our small tent, stretch out on the grass, and lazily watch fishing boats bobbing in an ocean of amazingly clear sea.

Lofoten has been scheduled as an idyllic island-hopping detour on a Nordic bike ride that will take us north to Tromso prior to crossing Finland’s Lapland. We already have 2100 kilometres in our legs – having cycled the alpine Highway 55 to Otta’s tourist hub before taking an overnight train to Bodo.  For Lofoten, we have planned an almost leisurely 280 kilometre ride, south to north, over six days.

The route weaves between the inner (sheltered) and outer (exposed) coasts. Not being in a rush becomes a good plan as we tackle the first day. Around almost every bend we are compelled to stop. Sheltered coves of Reine and Hamnøy are especially appealing. Above pointed mountains wispy wind clouds are reminiscent of those seen over New Zealand’s Southern Alps.


Between wooden fishing shacks are the now empty wooden racks where the winter cod catch is dried to become stockfish. The drying must coincide with temperatures being sufficiently low so as to not attract flies and maggots. A continuous breeze will carry a seaborne salinity.

No other country successfully conserves cod this way. Stockfish will survive for years as a nutritious natural food.  Most is exported to European countries and to Nigeria. Records for the Norwegian Arctic cod catch go back to 1750.

The fishery is a gift of the Gulf Stream originating in Mexico and circulating the northern Atlantic Ocean. Norway benefits most from this phenomenon. Temperatures are kinder than similar northern latitudes in Canada.       

For much of the day we pedal in conditions remindful of a balmy New Zealand spring day. But beyond the headland the sea is ruffled with whitecaps. All too quickly we are chillingly aware of the Arctic north wind. Crossing a bridge linking Moskenesøya with Flakstadøya Island, and following a fjord to the outer coast, and Reine, we struggle into its viciousness. 

Late afternoon we align out tent with the gale. Arrival of other cyclists, families on motor bikes and the ubiquitous campervans build a camaraderie along with a little shelter. At a nearby supermarket we mentally build a meal around an oversized can of meatballs and a satchel of Lofoten Fiskesuppe (fish soup). We complement with beer. Wine and anything else with higher alcohol content, is available only from a state-owned Vinmonopolet shop. We will not find one in this small seaside settlement.

We crowd into the warming kitchen with strange assortments of comfort food. Our meatballs are satisfying. The fish soup is a gourmet delight. Outside, the icy north wind flings clammy misty clouds over the mountains. Windows steam up.

The tent is mercifully cosy. At midnight, we crawl out to see the sun. We are not the only ones. Some bravely walk the beach heading into stinging windborne sand. The bright, reddish, midnight light is surreal.

                               Midnight beach

Haruko slips a bottle of cognac from her pocket and we toast the midnight sun poised comfortably above the horizon. In winter it will remain below the horizon. It is in winter when most of the cod will be fished. No wonder locals occasionally appear grumpy.  


Next day the sky is clear but the wind still icy. We tog up with thermals and wind-proofing. Much of the day we cycle on the lee side of the mountains and we walk through a two kilometre Nappstraum undersea tunnel to our next island, Vestvagøya. Tiring of the wind we find another welcoming campsite. I am surprised by the ill feelings expressed towards German people owing to the German occupation during WW2. Norwegians bravely sabotaged many of their occupier’s initiatives. Yet many visitors hail from Germany. Mostly on bicycles, I suspect they are on peaceful missions. 

Finding our way through the labyrinth of these isles is remarkably easy thanks to Norwegian cyclist, Knut Bjoraa, who has produced a series of card maps Castor Forlag with all-you-need-to-know about accommodation, cafes and food supplies along with visual and historic highlights.

And Lofoten roads rarely rise too far above the sea. Road builders attempting to ascend these sheer mountains rising from the ocean would soon be defeated. Pedalling here is not so strenuous. And once the wind eases, the experience becomes decidedly pleasurable.  

On the island Gimsøya we detour to Hov on the north facing coast. The camp manager recommends the nearby Café hull 19 also known as the ``whale café’’ with a competent chef.  Haruko, having no scruples about eating whale, says I should try. Being from a country fiercely opposed to hunting whales I am reluctant. But I am also curious. And, on Sunday, it is the only place we can buy a beer. Shamefully I relent.

Café hull is part of a nine-hole golf course, one of the world’s small number where players can tee off at midnight. I order the hvalbiff (whale beef) at Kr 179 (about $NZ 45).  I have seen whale meat displayed in supermarkets and it has not looked appetising.

The dish is pleasantly good. The taste is like beef leaning towards liver. It is accompanied by canned Arctic Beer, and wine poured from a cardboard box. Later when I ask if I could photograph the menu board, Frode Hov, who founded the golf course and café, asks if I am from a travel guide. I am the first to photograph such details.

We chat about whale being part of the Norwegian diet when food was scarce after World War 2. These days it is a delicacy. Frode says a veterinarian is on board boats to ensure minke whales are killed humanely, regulations are adhered to and quotas not exceeded.

Haruko says it is unfair Japanese are caught up in the whale controversy when Norway also hunts whales. Later I am to meet a kindly veterinarian who tells me there is no humanitarian way to kill a whale. Whale hunting is also controversial in Norway.

(Before pedalling away from our final Norwegian fjord a few days later Haruko and I were to see our own whale cruising, blowing and diving close to the shore – truly a magical experience.)

From Hov, our cycling route dives back to the inner coast leading us precariously over high bridges (built to allow ships to pass beneath). The bridges join a series of tiny islands jutting into the ocean and terminating at Henningsvaer, one of Norway’s best known fishing villages. We explore narrow twisting lanes to discover a cosy bar with views of sail and fishing craft moored in the inlet. 

On another day we ride through Kabelvåg with its famous wood cathedral, and Svolvaer a busy ferry terminal and 1956 birthplace of Kari Bremness. In her biographical notes she talks about her inspiration from summers filled with light and the mythical dark season.

These days the E 10 highway joins Lofoten and the Vesterålen isles via a tunnel. We leave Lofoten as we arrived, taking a car ferry from Fiskebøl, across Hadselfjorden, to Melbu. The crossing is made in 25 minutes.

Mist swirls around the bush and mountains, reminiscent of New Zealand’s Milford Sound. Drizzle sets in. Glancing at the gaping open ferry bows I think about my well digested whale meat steaks. Am I a latter day Jonah about to be swallowed up? At Melbu I am grateful to be escaping.

At the information centre we are approached by a cheerful guy with an impressive moustache. Erling Bjørstad is a teaching chef. He leads us upstairs to sample his students’ bacalao. It is a casserole made from stockfish potatoes and onion with tomato paste and garlic. He writes the recipe on my notepad before ladling generously from a large pot.

                              Erling Bjorstad

`It’s good food for the heart,’ he says, meaning, I guess, the soul.  It is excellent accompanied by cold water. It is all free. As the rain sets in outside the bacalao indeed warms our souls. And, this time, I eat a sea creature without feeling a cad.

          Midnight sun at Hov

To check out Knut Bjoraa’s multi-lingual Lofoten guide visit and






Thursday, 7 May 2020

Aland archipelago cycling
Approximately mid-way between Finland and Sweden, Aland Isles is Finish territory but the language is Swedish. Aland is, however, an independent region having its own flag (since 1954), postage stamps and culture.

 Mostly flat, Aland is a cycling paradise. Distances between locations are short. We rode on cycleways and quiet roads. Being Finish territory, Aland has EU associations. Currency, therefore, was simple to understand. One Euro dollar was about two NZ dollars.
It was Haruko’s idea to add Aland to our 2008 Nordic bicycle touring schedule. Her Lonely Planet guide, Scandinavian Europe featured Aland. In my Rough Guide, Aland barely got a mention. Additionally, Aland conveniently lay along our route to home. Our booked flights to New Zealand started from Stockholm.

Aland’s inhabited islands – 65 of more than 6000 of them, are joined by bridges or ferries.  The principal centre and port is Mariehamn (pop 11,000). We took the Viking Line ferry from Turku in Finland. It spent an hour in Mariehamn en-route to Stockholm. The ferry going from Stockholm to Turku berths about the same time. We spent four days in Aland, allowing us to experience a sample of islands while taking a circular route from Mariehamn.

Cycling was the preferred way of getting around. Few others were bikepacking as we were. Signage was detailed. We were intrigued by the red surfaces beside trails. Much of Aland features rocky granite with red and pink hues. When a road met the ocean, a ferry was there to take us to the next island. Cyclists were classified as pedestrians so there was no charge.
 We had a small tent so camping was convenient. Camps typically had a store for basics including beer. Occasionally we could buy a simple meal, or fall back on a self-prepared dehyd concoction.
Re Beer, Aland offered a local dark larger. It was something new to us. But it was very good and we voted it the best beer of our Scandinavian travels.

One camp was delightfully in a forest. The camp manager, spotting the small New Zealand flag on my cycling top, surprised me by asking about our famous Olympic mid-distance runner, John Walker. I was able to tell him he was alive and well having recently received knighthood. I had photographed him at a Sportsperson of the Year pre-view function when I was working on the Press.
Being an archipelago, maritime themes were apparent. We spotted model ships suspended in the fifteenth century Saint. Mathew church. They were likely added when the church was rebuilt during the 1970s.

We set out early to catch the final ferry back to Mariehamn, having heard it was smaller and ran infrequently. Others did the same so when we arrived at the end of the road quite a crowd of cyclists was already waiting. When the ferry arrived it was a mere launch. Nevertheless all the bikes were loaded and off we went. Luckily the ocean was calm.

Mariehamn’s uncluttered main street was a dream with ample bars and cafe's with outdoor seating. Cuisine was slanted towards Swedish, meatballs being a favourite.
Mariehamn’s principal attraction was its maritime museum where I was surprised to discover a link to New Zealand in a fine model of the sailing barque, Pamir. The ship had become prize of war during a regular visit to Wellington in 1941. A tweak in European allegiances had made Finland an enemy. Under the New Zealand flag, Pamir made trans-Tasman and around the world voyages. It was crewed jointly by Finish and Kiwi seafarers. Pamir was returned to Finland during an emotional ceremony in Wellington in November 1948. Pamir then sailed to South Australia to join Passat for the last grain race to London. 

Pamir, I realised, had belonged in Aland when owned by Gustar Erikson. Pamir was one of the Flying P liner fleet of the Erikson Line.
Pamir was wrecked in September 1957 during an Atlantic storm. Only five of the 80 crew were rescued. Many of the causalities were sea cadets.
A museum exhibit we could board was the barque, Pommerin. Animated voice-over displays took us on an imaginary round-the world voyage. Flying P Liners were steel-hulled.  They were expensive to purchase and operate. Long voyages were therefore necessary. Hence their involvement in the grain trade from Australia to London.

Next day we, ourselves, went to sea when we rode our bikes onto the Viking Line ferry and headed to Stockholm. Good-bye Aland.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Symbol of Hope –and peace (A discovery while cycling Orkney Isles)

Orkney comprises 70 Islands. Just 20 are inhabited. Day one we cycled from Burwick ferry terminal to Kirkwall. Burwick is a 45-minute ferry ride from John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland.
On a dismal grey day we pedalled north, crossing so-called Churchill Barriers constructed by WW2 Italian prisoners. The barriers were to prevent German U-boats getting into Scapa Flow. In October 1939 a U-boat had got into Scapa Flow and sunk HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 800 lives.

Twelve hundred Italians were sent to uninhabited Lamb Holm Island to build the barriers.  I had thought, unless ardent supporters of Mussolini, Italians had little heart for fighting WW2.

Lamb Holm was the fourth island we cycled across. As with much of Orkney, it was a cheerless landscape deprived of trees. Here we found a curious relic to those Italians of Camp 60. In a landscape of barbed wire were two Nissen huts, given to the pensioners to create a place for worship.

The Italians were treated reasonably well as prisoners of war. Their one complaint was having no place to worship – hence the Nissen huts. From the austere huts they created their church. It is so beautifully decorated, it remains today as a remarkable symbol of triumph over defeat and loneliness. I had visited great cathedrals of England. Magnificent as they were, they failed to make a lasting impression as did the Italian Chapel. Here, there were no signs forbidding photography. Yet the Italians had created a photographers’ dream.

An artistic prisoner, Domenico Chiocchetti, and a small band of ingenious helpers, crafted the chapel making the best use of otherwise worthless scrap. The altar, altar rail and holy water scoop are moulded from concrete.

The chancel is partitioned by a wrought-iron screen. Painted glass windows depict St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine of Sienna. Chiocchetti’s own masterpiece above the altar, a representation of the Madonna and Child, is from the famous Nicolo Barabina work Madonna of the Olives. Chiocchetti carried a small reproduction with him throughout the war.

After the war the chapel became a place for pilgrimage. But the permanence of materials used was doubtful. In 1960, funded by the BBC, Chiocchetti accepted an invitation to return to Orkney. He had no intention to work on the Italian Chapel. But that is what he did, helped by the Orkney people. In three weeks the chapel was returned to its original splendour. All artwork was remade with permanent materials. There was much to celebrate.

In a letter to the Orkney people before returning to his home in Moena, Italy, Chiocchetti wrote:

``……. The chapel is yours – for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.  I shall remember always, and my children shall learn from me to love you. …..’’     

Inspired, I followed my companion, Haruko, across the last of the Churchill Barriers. The day had become even gloomier. The rusted hulk of a once proud ship was half-submerged in the bay. I pondered the friendships derived from Italian prisoners, forced to manhandle huge blocks of concrete forming the barriers, and their Orkney captors. And I felt a glimmer of pride in having Orkney ancestry.  Lamb Holm Island is owned by a Sinclair.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Pint-sized railway
I recall a newspaper photo of long ago. A boy of about my age at the time and his father were standing beside a small steam locomotive. Photo was captioned, ``I won’t have to wait so long to drive this one.’’
Photo was taken at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) in Kent on England’s south east coast. Having seen it, I was determined to find out more about it and visit the railway myself. This I did, albeit many years later in October, 1995.
The railway is 15-inch (381 mm) gauge. It is billed as the ``world’s smallest public railway.’’ It is a public railway owing to having a contract to take students to school.
Locomotives are about one-third size of prototypes. They carry improbable names; Samson, Hercules, Hurricane and Typhoon. Most were built during the late 1920s.
John Snell had been managing director for about 27 years.  He was born in Fiji in 1932 and grew up in New Zealand. He went to school in New Zealand. He acquired his railway interest in my country.
He called on me when I was working on the Press in Christchurch. He struck me as the archetypal English gentleman.
 I told him I wanted to interview him for a story; ``but not here. I will visit you in England.’’
That happened about one year later;
 Meeting John Snell in New Romney was a delight. Like a Gulliver amongst the small locomotives, he was wearing a permanent smile. He strode through his railway kingdom knowing he could offer the train ride of a lifetime. I was invited to join him in his bar car on the rear of a train. Loco No.1, Green Goddess, was ready to take us on the 20 km tour of RH&DR. 

John Snell and Green Goddess

The RH&DR is a splendid reminder of the more eccentric side of the British character. Our 14-total train was loaded with 240 passengers.  Our carriage was compact but big enough to sit inside. Drinks from the central bar were passed from one passenger to another.

Although small, this was no toy. RH&DR recreates all the joy and atmosphere of a full-sized steam-powered railway. The Latin motto on the side of carriages ``Multum in Parvo'' translates ``Much in little.''
``Like me, John told me, ``this railway had its origins in the Antipodes. It was built in the 1920s by a very rich man, Captain J.E.P. Howey. During the 19th century an ancestor of Howey curiously purchased some waste land beside the Yarra River in Australia.
``Later, the same land became the centre of Melbourne and worth a lot of money. Melbourne still has a `Howey Place.

``So the story goes, Captain Howey was a speed fanatic. During the early 1920s he drove a racing car, a 7-litre Leyland Eight. He gave up racing when his elderly mother disapproved. All his energies then went into building this railway.''

Howey converted a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to run on the RH&DR where he attained speeds up to 60mph (about 100km/hr). On one occasion he recklessly set a station on fire when it was no longer needed.

``Eccentric'' is rather a strong word to describe Captain Howey, said John Snell. ``He was certainly not quite like most people.

``Howey owned several million pounds. Each of the RH&DR steam locomotives cost him about the same as a Rolls Royce motor car.

``He was one of the old school of Englishman. A rather special kind. You had to get onto his wavelength to realise he was quite a reasonable bloke.

``Owning quite a slice of Melbourne meant he got used to being in the Antipodes. That made quite a difference to him, as it did to me.''

We arrived at Dungeness, close to the Strait of Dover. A cheerless place overlooked by a nuclear power station. Houses sat on the shingle beach. Many started off as old railway carriages from the former Southern Railway. Inhabitants were mostly fishermen.

John Snell says Dungeness means basically ``old nest''. He laughed and told me to work the ``Dung'' part out for myself.

From Dungeness the railway followed a balloon loop and returned to New Romney. John Snell talked about being able to build carriages large enough to sit in.

``You can build, as you do in New Zealand, much wider than the track gauge. On the RH&DR we go up to three times the gauge.''

John Snell spent about four years with British Rail until he realised what Dr Beeching was really up to. Then he was offered the RH&DR job over lunch in a London hotel. ``That's always the best way to be offered a job.

``The RH&DR had just changed hands for a second time, having almost faced closure. Captain Howey died in 1963. With no-one in the family with any interest, the railway passed to two businessmen who thought they could make money.

``It was rescued by a group led by Sir William McAlpine who also owned Flying Scotsman. By that stage the railway was somewhat run down. We have built it up considerably over the years.''

Beyond New Romney the railway is double track. Here we enjoyed the thrill of two trains passing with a combined speed of more than 70km/hr. At Dymchurch we walked across the tracks to join a train returning to New Romney. It was hauled by Typhoon.

Typhoon at New Romney

``We are financially successful but we would like to do better,'' John Snell said.

``Working for the RH&DR, you can achieve something. It's not like struggling away in the morass of what used to be British Rail. Nothing you did there would ever make a difference.

``Life is reassuring on the RH&DR. The pompous little engines are a reminder that, in an ever changing world, a sense of humour is an essential part of the survival kit,'' he said.

I kept in touch with John Snell from time to time. He died in 2014, aged 82.

Having enjoyed John Snell’s railway another highlight awaited –the National Railway Museum at York.

Record Breakers. Rocker and Mallard National Railway Museum 

                              Replica 4-wheel passenger carriage. National Railway Museum

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Railway Reminiscing- 1
Elsewhere I penned how photography became the preferred expression of my railway fascination. I have been thinking about that while contributing to FB pages, NZ Rail photography and NZ Rail Geography. For some years my railway interest was on the back burner while I took on a craze for mega bicycle travel in several countries. Photography, however, remained a common activity across all interests.
Apart from owning a succession of wonderful cameras, a prized early possession was the booklet of New Zealand Railway timetables. It was purchased from a railway station for the princely sum of One shilling.

Prior to having access to a motor car, I had to get to railway locations. I could bike to Christchurch railway station. An option was to take the 10 am Greymouth railcar as far as Springfield, arriving at 11.16 am. I could get a shot of the railcar departing, hopefully with a Torlesse mountains backdrop. Soon after a west-bound goods followed. It was typically Kb-hauled.

Then it was a matter of amusing myself to be ready to catch the afternoon Christchurch-bound railcar at 2.20 pm. That was during the early 1960s. I recall wandering along the line as far as the Kowai viaduct. The new viaduct was completed. Beside it was the remains of the original bridge which lost its central span in a flood on April 22, 1951.

I would be home by 5 pm in time for the evening meal.
Another, weekend option, was taking the Greymouth railcar to Arthurs Pass where I stayed in the YHA. I would spend the rest of the day close to the railway to catch activity involving the Kb. class steam locos and Eo. class electrics.

 Not much happened on Sunday so I went walking in the mountains. About 8 pm on Sunday evening I got the railcar to Christchurch, arriving about 11pm. I rarely relished riding my bike home so late at night, especially if I had dozed on the railcar.
Arthurs Pass is responsible for my railway passion. My father belonged to the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. So most holidays prior to him getting his first motor car were at Arthurs Pass. We got there aboard the West Coast express departing at 9.50 am. Our never complaining mother carried everything essential for the family of four in improvised carriers. One container had been an unlikely oval hat box. Our father had a back pack, a souvenir from WW2. We always had a cottage to stay in. It would have been built for those working on building the Otira rail tunnel. One cottage was ``Gaya.’’ Formally the tunnel engineer’s dwelling, it was occupied by a colourful Scotsman, Charles Warden.
 If we needed assistance getting to our accommodation from the railway station, there was local taxi driver, Jack Suiter. He had two veteran Rolls Royce taxis. He drove at break-neck speeds on the shingle roads.

Hence, my passion for railways and the Alpine environment never looked backwards. Later, I enjoyed travel in countries that thrived on railways and Alpine environments. An obvious choice was Switzerland.  I dubbed Switzerland as an ``Arthurs Pass on steroids.’’
Back to my early teenage years. I found companions with the railway photography bug. Some had transport. We would drive to Kowai Bush just beyond Springfield and walk about 5 km. to the 37 metre-high Pattersons Creek viaduct. One tunnel on the line could be walked around.
At the viaduct, we waited for the Greymouth-bound railcar to cross. We knew it would then be safe to walk across the viaduct and await the following west-bound goods train. A small hill on the far side offered an interrupted view of the viaduct. Often the locomotive crew would spot us and made themselves visible in our photographs. 

We might later get an east bound goods, and then walk back to Kowai Bush. One time an expected Kb was replaced by a pair of diesels, Dgs. We debated if we were disappointed or not. We concluded we were fortunate in photographing locos belonging to the future. Yarning was part of the rewards. We were young people with a curiosity for a wealth of subjects. In time girls would be part of the discussion even if they were to lead to personal derailments, figuratively and literally.