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Realm of the Polar Bear - Arctic Journals

Day 1 & 2 Oslo

Our extraordinary journey started with a flight from Edinburgh to Oslo, where we spent two days in sweltering 30C temperatures and, of course, we were dressed in our Arctic apparel! The Royal Palace, with its grand, yet unpretentious, architecture, situated at the head of Karl Johan’s Gata in the city centre was the first venue we visited. It was built in the early 19th century as the formal residence of the French-born King Charles III, who reigned as King of Norway and Sweden. A statue of him, commemorating the first King of an Independent Norway, dominates the impressive Palace Square.

In a city where its architecture is very conservative, the new Opera House, overlooking the harbour is, perhaps the most inspiring. A spectacular building, opened in 2008, designed to encapsulate the Norwegian spirit of nature, where you can walk anywhere and appreciate the surroundings. The design reflects this philosophy with open access, its roof raises gracefully from street level encouraging you to walk onto its marbled crown and simply enjoy the view.

Hot and exhausted we had a meal at one of the many street restaurants down by the popular waterfront before retiring back to our hotel.

Next morning, and the purpose of our stop-over in Oslo, was to visit the renowned ‘Fram’ Museum. This museum is dedicated to Polar exploration and focuses on the small, amazing ship ‘Fram’ that made several epic journeys to both Polar regions back in the 18th century. In my opinion it is one of the world’s better museums and an obvious starting point for any visit to the Arctic; putting our own ‘exploration’ into context.

For thousands of years the High Arctic was populated only by small, wandering groups of Inuit, with ice blocking the way for ship-borne explorers. Over time, exploration of new trading routes, and possible riches further north, claimed many lives, producing harrowing tales of suffering. More than 1000 men died in search of the Northwest Passage alone, and dozens of vessels were shipwrecked. Sir John Franklin’s famous last expedition in 1845 resulted in the loss of his two ships and 129 men.

Fridtjof Nansen was inspired by the meteorology professor Henrik Mohn, who formulated the theory of an east-west current across the Arctic Ocean, based on finds from the wrecked American ship ‘Jeannette’ that had drifted from the New Siberian Islands to the Greenland coast. Nansen hoped to prove this theory by allowing his own ship, Fram, to freeze in the Arctic pack-ice on the eastern side of the Arctic Ocean, and let it drift to the west.

The first Fram was built by Colin Archer (1832-1921), in close consultation with Nansen and Otto Sverdrup. Archer was born of Scottish parents in Larvik and started designing and building ships in1867. By 1875 he had established a ship-building yard at Rekkevik in Larvik, and it was from here the Fram was built in 1891-92. Colin Archer is also famous for the sailing boats he designed for life-saving missions; these are now known as “Colin Archers”. Altogether he built more than 200 vessels of various types.

Fridtjof Nansen’s plan to deliberately let his ship freeze into the dreaded Arctic ice was revolutionary. The idea was first thought to be suicidal, as no ship could withstand the ice pressure. However, Fram proved this assumption wrong, but then the construction was exceptional. The main innovation was its rounded hull, with smooth sides so the ice could not get a grip to pull the ship down. To the contrary, the design caused uplift, like a round nut squeezed between two fingers. The wooden materials were stronger, thicker and more closely spaced than on any other ship before. The rudder and propeller could be hoisted up inside a well into the stern to protect them from ice damage, and the ship was short, for manoeuvrability in the ice as well as for extra strength. The Fram was designed as a three mast-schooner with a 34m high main mast of pitch-pine. A triple expansion steam engine gave 220hp and a speed of 6-7 nm/hour in calm seas. In the museum, they have built a specially designed simulation room, where you can undergo the frightening sensation of a ship being crushed by the pressure of ice; the wooden structure groans and creaks, floor board move independently and it is extremely cold. Given our Arctic attire and the heatwave outside, we spent some time enjoying this experience!

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