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Dirty mining town one day, perfect the next

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Kiruna, Sweden

26-28 January 2013

The window seat of my Boeing 737-600 had no window, which was very frustrating, given of all flights, the one from Stockholm to Kiruna, located just inside the Arctic Circle at 67.5°N, would have been one of the more spectacular ones. Walking down the stairs onto what should have been the tarmac but was instead a sea of beautiful white snow served only to confirm this.

More artistic value than air-conditioning ducts

More artistic value than air-conditioning ducts

This was also the part of the holiday that stubbornly refused to work out. Air Berlin rearranged my onward flights from Stockholm to unacceptable times threatening to throw the whole arrangement out, the Aurora Sky Station cancelled my planned overnight tour on me with one day of notice and failed to properly communicate the alternatives, and the town was very close to booked out, in part due to a planeload of Japanese package tourists who arrived on a special flight half an hour after I did direct from Tokyo, one of four that run each winter.

Here, the days are short at this time of year. For a couple of weeks a year, the sun does not rise at all. But I had the luxury of 9:15 sunrises, so for the first time in quite a while, I got to witness it an incredible golden sunrise in all its glory. Midday also pretty much looked like sunset, with the solar altitude peaking barely 4° above the horizon. But the long nights were excellent for the reason I travelled to this faraway place, was to see the Aurora Borealis, and I wasn’t going to let that slip by.

Rental car jackpot

Rental car jackpot

Given the Sky Station threw my train trip and overnight plans into disarray, I was forced to hire a car and go there myself. I booked a compact car through Avis (nominally a Volkswagon Polo), but was instead given a brand new Mercedes E220, with less than 500km on the clock. Oh, if only the operational upgrades with the work hire cars were that luxurious.

Things were finally looking up, as was I, as I sat in a chairlift at Abisko, 90km north-west of Kiruna, making my way on a twenty minute long chairlift ride up the mountain in darkness and extraordinary silence to the Sky Station which claimed to have unusually cloud-free weather for the region, and some of the best Auroras around, being perched on a mountain and away from light pollution. I stayed for dinner, and ate some roast moose, and afterwards spent a couple of hours lying in the snow looking upwards, seeing nothing but clouds that stubbornly refused to disappear. Midway through the evening, it began to lightly snow – I frowned. I could tell that the Aurora was happening, very occasionally I would see green glowing through the clouds, or a quick streak in the minute gaps between clouds, I was simply not lucky enough to get to see Aurora Borealis in all it’s glory. Disappointingly, I made my way back down the hill just before midnight, and made the 70 minute journey back to Kiruna for the night.

Intricately crafted rooms at the Icehotel

Intricately crafted rooms at the Icehotel

The next morning, I met up with a person from the internet, and went to visit the Icehotel. This place is painfully reconstructed every winter, and never has the same room designs twice. The suites all have incredibly unique themes carved out of the ice by local and international sculptures. The rooms are impressive and works of art in their own right, and it is lucky that they are open for viewing during the day while the guests are not there. The walkabout ended with a stop at the bar for a lingonberry juice served from a glass fashioned from ice, of course. Believe me, it tastes much better here than the concoction spewed from the soft drink fountains at Ikea. There is one slight issue with the practicality of the Icehotel, which is that the rooms lack toilets.

Skål!

Skål!

Visiting the loo in the night requires putting on boots, and going for a reasonably long walk to another building to do this. Not so good when the biting cold serves only to increase bladder activity.

Afterwards, we took ourselves on a bit of a walking tour of the city. Behind all of the tourism façade, Kiruna is a mining town at heart, with iron ore the commodity at the government owned mine just a couple of kilometres from the township. Thankfully though, Kiruna is no Moranbah or Port Hedland. Wages are high, but not ridiculously so, neither are prices. The hotels are not total rubbish, but functional and pleasant. It’s not a dirty place, or if it is, the snow and beautiful wilderness did an excellent job at masking that. Most importantly, it still has a family atmosphere that the FIFO communities lack.

Winter wonderland in Kiruna complemented by the exhaust towers of the iron ore mine

Winter wonderland in Kiruna complemented by the exhaust towers of the iron ore mine

But the underground mine is getting old, and interestingly, plans are afoot by mining company LKAB to move the entire city centre further east to allow them to dig until around 2035. An international design competition is currently underway with the designs of six firms on display at the City Hall, where residents can vote for their favourite design.

Kiruna, still shares the same Swedish oddities I’m told are experienced all over the country, for one, any alcohol above 3.5% alcohol content can only be sold unchilled from Systembolaget, a government run liquor chain with high prices and limited opening hours. Another is that to work around Sweden’s minimum driving age of 18, youth buy and sell ordinary cars registered as tractors, speed limited to 30km/h but otherwise perfectly legal for operators over 15.

Finally, I ended the trip by enlisting myself on a snowmobile safari, in search of the Aurora. In contrast to the previous night, this night was completely cloudless, but this also made it bitingly cold, the car had -29°C on the dash when we left it to fetch our vehicles, and I was assured it was going to be much colder at our destination as it is a lake, and also after taking into account the effect of wind chill. On this holiday, I have conquered my fear of cold and learned how to dress comfortably down to about -10°C without feeling cold at all, but the negative thirties were certainly testing the friendship.

After getting a quick tutorial on how to operate the snowmobile, we climbed aboard and headed off in search of the northern lights. However, the opposite of the previous night occurred. The clouds were gone, but the action in the sky was simply not happening. I should have been sad, but strangely, I wasn’t.

Snowmobiling

Snowmobiling

When you are driving a snowmobile at 70km/h across a frozen lake, or the beautiful Arctic wilderness on a relatively still, cloudless and moonlit night, nothing else really matters. Everything about the experience was magical, from feeling the cool air across my face as I powered across the landscape, to the millions of stars glowing brightly in the sky, to the way the snow sparkled like glitter in the headlights.

In both the emotional and physical sense, it was the coolest thing ever.

My time in Kiruna has represented many extremes. It was my first time in the Arctic Circle, and indeed the furthest north I have ever been, the coldest I have ever experienced, and the first time I have ridden a snowmobile. It was an absolutely unforgettable time, and I do not regret coming one bit.

Midday sun

Midday sun

Midnight moon

Midnight moon

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Art vs Science

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London, United Kingdom

23-25 January 2013

As I continued to make my way around the world, the pace rapidly accelerated as the countries I hopped between lasted shorter in duration, and the stays became shorter and more frenetic. I had figured that by this stage of the holiday, my attention span for new places would have significantly diminished. This was especially true for London, a city to which I am no stranger.

An empty plane

An empty plane

I was actually quite looking forward to the flight, as I was booked on flight BA4 – one of the flight numbers previously allocated to the Concorde’s New York-London services. While the age of supersonic travel has long ended without me ever having had a chance to indulge, the service lives on in the form of an all-Business class service (instead of the usual mix) using miniature Airbus A318’s (as opposed to the much larger widebodies) travelling in to London City airport (in contrast to the more remote Heathrow airport). I was expecting great things from the intimate cabin of just 32 seats, especially when I discovered I was one of just a handful of people on the evening’s flight, but British Airways disappointed, and sadly it was the hard product that didn’t make the grade.

You see, it appears that the bed that they use is designed for midgets, not men with 190 centimetres of height such as myself. It wouldn’t have been such a problem if I were able to use the full bed space, but the muppets fixed an immoveable headrest/pillow way too far down the bed, forcing me to curl my legs up uncomfortably the whole trip over the pond.

Unexpectedly sleepless, I arrived at London City airport a zombie, and made my way over to Paddington, where I met Jess, a former colleague of mine who had just the day before took the plunge and moved to the UK. And at 10am, I went to sleep.

Zzzzzz. Six hours later.

Art

Art

I never intended to be jetlagged, but I had just totally wrecked my sleep cycle waking up again at 4pm. In a bleak attempt to salvage something of the day, we quickly got ready and headed to some of the few London landmarks I had not yet visited. First stop, Tate Modern.

Now art is problematic, in that it is so subjective that you will never really appreciate everything fully. I felt that compared to ‘traditional’ art, I was much more inclined to like modern art, and this is based on comparing my experiences at Paris’ Louvre, which was somewhat wasted on me, to say, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. But when one of the first pieces you see is little more than air-conditioning ducts placed on the floor next to a descriptive white wall-mounted plaque, you start to question whether you actually ‘get’ art at all. Progressing through the museum, I felt this view was more and more accurate.

Death of a salesman

Death of a salesman

Next stop was more up my alley, an arbitrary line which doesn’t actually exist – the Prime Meridian. A short journey across south London to Greenwich got us to the park in which houses the Royal Observatory, in which smart boffins quite some time ago invented a Cartesian coordinates system to allow worldwide naval navigation. Equipped with the GPS in my phone, I excitedly walked towards the line where I hoped to straddle two hemispheres simultaneously, for the second time this trip. You can imagine my delight when I spot a high powered laser, carving a slice through the dark night sky, emanating from the roof of the observatory took away the guesswork for me.

Satisfied with my geographical conquests thus far, we retired to the nearby Plume of Feathers pub for a hearty meal and round of trivia before heading home.

The next day, in the interests of conquering new horizons, we jumped on a train and headed to Cambridge for the day. Due to my self-inflicted jetlag, we didn’t leave London until 3pm, but attempted to make the most of it anyway. On arrival, we found there was little to do but admire the beautiful architecture and intricate gardens and the daily life of a living, breathing university town amongst the narrow, cobblestone streets.

Cambridge architechture

Cambridge architechture

The city was blanketed in a thin layer of fresh, crisp snow giving a wintery novelty I had never experienced before. While Cambridge contains little to tempt the typical tourist, especially at 6pm in winter, it was a relief after the bustling metropolises I’d visited of late to return to a tranquil place where people live with a distinct sense of normality.

On the way back to London on that final night with but a week remaining in my trip, I thought I’d return a little bit of normality of my own to my routine; I had Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken for dinner.

Who knew the Prime Meridian was a real thing?

Who knew the Prime Meridian was a real thing?

My Go Card

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At the end of this month, the end of an era will be marked with the expiry of my student card, and consequently, my concession Go Card.

This first release card has provided over four years of loyal service to the bearer, and the statistics are staggering. Some $2,600 of electronic money has slipped through the card’s delicate integrated circuits.

The card has transported me a distance of over 35,000km, the distance of Brisbane to London and back, over more than 1,200 trips.

I will miss you, my little green card of joy, but it is time to enter the big, brave adult world.

Concession Go Card

My battle weary concession Go Card, expiring 31st March.