Camels and Characters in the Far North
Retracing the steps of Hurtigruten’s very first voyage to Hammerfest, one of the world’s most northerly towns.
WORDS OLIVER BERRY
“Congratulations! You are now a member of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society,” announces my guide Anna, beaming as she pins a polar bear-shaped badge to my chest and hands over my official ID card, sticker, and membership certificate (signed by the mayor of Hammerfest, no less, I note with pride).
“You know, this is a very exclusive club,” she continues. “Elvis Presley once asked to join, but we turned him down because it is a rule that you must travel to Hammerfest in order to become a member.” It’s a peculiar introduction to Hammerfest, not least because polar bears haven’t lived here since the end of the last ice age (to see them these days, you’ll have to head 900 km north to Svalbard). But Hammerfest is a charmingly peculiar place. Located 600 km north of the Arctic Circle, this tiny conurbation of over 11,200 souls is famous as one of the world’s most northerly towns – a title hotly contested by neighbouring Honningsvåg.
The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear society is one of Hammerfest's many quirky aspects.
Hammerfest is a cluster of colourful buildings hunkered down along the barren, rocky coast of the island of Kvaløya. Surrounded by mountains, fjords and endless white, the visitors who stray this far north are intrepid explorers fresh from a Hurtigruten cruise, or aurora-hunters in search of the Northern Lights. In the depths of winter between 22 November and 20 January, when temperatures rarely stray above sub-zero, Hammerfest’s extreme northern latitude means that the sun never makes it above the horizon at all. Conversely, during the high summer from 16 May to 27 July, the town basks in 24 hours of constant daylight.
“Hammerfest is a cluster of colourful buildings hunkered down along the barren, rocky coast of the island of Kvaløya”
— Oliver Berry
On 2 July 1893, Hurtigruten’s ship DS Vesteraalen began the company’s maiden voyage from Trondheim, bound for the endless white plains of the north. A total of 67 hours later the ship docked at Hammerfest, and thus the town will forever be intertwined with Hurtigruten’s history. The original voyage to Hammerfest was a game changer. Mail that previously took almost three weeks to deliver from the capital Oslo (and vice versa) now took under a week. Almost 130 years later, Hurtigruten are still providing ‘The Express Route’ and have shaved almost 26 hours off that original time, now making the journey in under 48 hours.
Salen Hammerfest Norway. Photo: Carina Dunkhorst
Grazing reindeer, not far from Hammerfest.
Like much of Norway, Hammerfest has a humble but colourful architecture, designed to withstand a challenging climate.
The town took some rebuilding after it was looted and burned to the ground by German troops near the end of World War II, as they retreated from the Soviet army. Since then, its residents have built it back, and enjoyed the peace of their mysterious hamlet in the far north of the world.
Over three days here, I meet my fair share of interesting characters. I’ve gone fishing for the famous king crab with a local man named Bjørn, who explained that he had swum in the sea every day for the last 30 years, and claimed he was no longer able to feel the cold. I went hiking with a chap called Einar Pedersen, an alpine guide and adventure sports enthusiast who, when he wasn’t exploring the mountains around Hammerfest, liked to spend his time Arctic surfing and ice fishing. And I travelled to an offshore island where – I kid you not – I went camel trekking. In the Arctic. Really. While usually associated with the heat of the desert, this subspecies of camel can survive temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Celsius. During winter, they can often be seen frolicking in the snow.
Bactrian camels in Akkarfjord. Photo: Marthe Nyvoll.
I’ve also been bewitched by Hammerfest’s beauty, which can be found in its purity and distinctiveness. I’ve skimmed the Arctic waters in a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), watched seals play in hidden coves, and seen seabirds massing over deserted islands (once, I spotted a whale’s fin). I’ve gone reindeer herding with the Samí, learning about their fascinating culture and semi-nomadic way of life. I’ve hiked up the Tyventrappa Sherpa stairway, and gazed down over the snaking Sørøysundet strait from the summit of Mount Tyven.
Reindeer sledding Coastal Expedition Norway. Photo: Agurtxane Concellon
Reindeer of Hammerfest, Norway.
King Crab chilling in the snow.
On my last night in town, I’m walking along Hammerfest’s snowy streets as the Northern Lights put on a firecracker of a show above my head. It goes on for hours; a maelstrom of shimmering greens, blues, pinks and purples, fading in and out of view like a mirage. I settle down for bed in my geodesic pod, gazing up at the night sky from under a mountain of reindeer skins, and before long I’m fast asleep while the Aurora dances on over my head. There might be some weird when it comes to Hammerfest, but there’s plenty of wonderful too.