A good friend of mine wanted to go on holiday, and asked me if I wanted to go with her. It was the start of many travels together, and the start of my love affair with the North. All in all, a pretty momenteous journey. We flew to Stockholm from London, and spent the rest of the day looking around the city. The next day we flew up north to Kiruna, where the real fun began.
The scene when we arrived in Kiruna was out of this world, in fact, it was more like a fairytale than anything I was used to before. Mounds of snow were everywhere, and everything was white. There was an eerie light, as there was only a few hours of dawn-like light each day. It was a magical place, but the best was yet to come. We took the coach from Kiruna to Jukkasjarvi,where we were confronted by a most fantastic sight: a hotel made from ice.
We had to check in at the wooden permanent part of the ice hotel. There are two types of accomodation there: the warm rooms, which are effectively wooden cabins, with saunas attached, and the rooms made from ice themselves. There were two types of ice room: the standard rooms, which we stayed in, and the suites, which were beautifully crafted expressions of the various artists that came to build them. The entrance (right) was covered by a fabric divider and the bed (far right) by raindeer pelts.
They even put some decorations in the standard rooms, hand carved from the ice, which was a nice touch. The outside temperature was, if I remember correctly, -20C, colder when windy, but inside i never dropped below -5C. We were given thermal sleeping bags which had hoods to protect your head (though it was much more fun not wearing the hood) and which kept you really toasty.
In the morning, we were woken by the staff bringing us hot Lingonberry juice. The juice was gorgeous, and just the thing after spending a night in the freezer! Incedently, if you want to try Lingonberry juice for yourself, I think you can buy it at Ikea.
We only spent one night in the cold accomodation, before moving to the cabins. There were single-sex communal showers and saunas, and I tell you now, that sauna was just the trick after night in the cold room!
The photos on the right are examples of the 'snow architecture' that could be seen in some of the suites at the hotel. Artists from all around the world come to try their hands at the creation of something really special.
Obviously, each year different styles can be seen, for, each spring, the hotel melts away in the warmth of the waxing sun. Unfortunately, when we we there, the hotel had only been open for three days, and the Ice Cathedral had not been completed. People even get married at the churches constucted at the hotel - imagine the wedding photos from that! There are ice sculptures, great lighting effects, and even, in one of the suites, ice sofas and an ice fire-place.
Of course, no hotel would be complete without a bar, and what a great bar it was. The ice bar had all the drinks you could want, a great set bar workers, and revelers that all had a love of the cold in common. The drinks were served in ice glasses, and there was no imposition of strict quotas on the size of shots!
One thing though: when we were there, the changing room, which is wooden, has two doors. One leads to the sleeping area, the other leads from the bar. Don't do what I did and end up walking through the bar in your pants.
There are loads of things to do a the Ice Hotel. The first trip we went on was a dog-sled trip. The picture on the right shows the eerie half light that as around most of the time. It was beautiful yet strangely unnerving, as if the sun was struggling to make itself known, and failing!
The trip itself was excellent, apart from the bit where I fell off, my butt making a hole in the frozen lake, and subsequently turned to ice! The photo far right shows the narnia-like quality of the area, while he video below right was taken while on the sled. Note the small piece of vanity in the video...
After going throgh some forested areas, we made our way to a clearing with some tents. Here we made some food, and had a nice rest and a good thaw. One of the things which struck me most, and which I always looked forward to when returning to the North, is the lack of noise. It's so quiet there that it forces you to mute the noise and distraction in your own head. Perhaps that's why only those people that are happy in there own company, and with silence, come back again and again to the cold snowy North. Our next trip, however, was just as exciting...
Our second trip was on a snow mobile. Now, I'd never driven one of these before, and quite frankly had never driven anything on dry-land before either. Boy, did we have fun...
So the first part of the journey was through a forest. It all started off well, and was going fine, until I almost drove us off a cliff. Only a very fortuitously placed sapling stopped our plunging to certain death. With that out of the way, we headed towards a cabin in the middle of the forest in a clearing.
Here, we had a meal and tried to recover from the first of our many death defying experiences on holiday together. We waited for the light to disappear, then headed outside for a glimpse of the northern lights as they danced across the sky. Unfortunately, none of my photos came out, but believe me it was beautiful.
The picture to the left shows our group leader, Patrick, out for a wander in the forest. The snow was deep! It was truly wonderful to be there.
Once we had all eaten and got our fill of the aurora, we got back on our snowmobiles and headed back. This time I took a back seat, and let my friend take the wheel. Oh boy! As we were speeding across the frozen lake, we went over a wet patch, as the lake had only just frozen three days before, and skidded. My hands slipped and I managed to stay on solely using my thighs. I shouted for her to slow down which, unfortunately, she heard as "speed up". Suffice it to say, death was narrowly avoided a second time.
It was fun though...
The only bad point to this trip was the fact that we had to leave. I really recommend the Ice Hotel to anyone who appreciates the beauty of the North, or anyone who just wants time away from a busy life. It's a great place to think, to find yourself, or to loose yourself, if that's what you need. Since going there, I've been up to the North every year. And every year it gets better and better.
Whilst staying up by Stonehenge a couple of months ago, I happened to look through a Guide to Wiltshire, and found the Bush Farm Bison Centre. There seemed to be lots of interesting things to see, so I went decided to go along. After reading a bit more, I found that, not only were there at least two fields of Bison to see, but also Elk, Raccoons, Guanaco, Rhea, and Prairie Dogs! That's right, Prairie Dogs!
This had me excited enough, but there was more to come. The grounds consisted of about 30 acres of oak woodland, with a lovely wood of Birch trees, a swamp, and clearings containing Native American art and artefacts.
In the main area, there was a gift shop and information centre, which sold paintings, pelts, horns, books, maps, and many other great things. Best of all, it was a working farm, so you could buy bison meat (and elk too). Colin & Pepe Seaford are the owners, and were more than happy to chat about the Farm. They even had a kitchen there so you could have Bison burgers piping hot and filled with nutritional goodness. According to the Bush Farm Website, Bison meat contains only 40mg of Cholesterol per 100g, compared with 93 for pork, 90 for Chicken, and 85 for Beef.
To get to the Farm, you really need to be driving, as it is in the middle of nowhere. You have to approach it via a tiny little track which leads to the car park. If you are travelling in from the village of West Knoyle, you get to go past this quaint little church. It has a small parking space outside the gate, where you can make a quick stop. It is ideal for a short picnic in the grounds, and the church itself is nice to look at. The view from the church, which is situated on a hill, is lovely, and great for a bit of landscape photography.
Once safely in the farm, have a look through the gallery and shop, and around the grounds. In the main building, the gallery and shop have some greatartefacts and curios to see, such as a map charting Bison migration, Bison horns for quaffing (I'm chuffed I managed to get the word "quaffing" legitimately into a post!) and Bison robes to keep you warm in winter. There are also some excellent works of art on display.
The area around the main farm building is normally teeming with chickens, and there is a lovely covered area with tables and chairs, available as arestaurant area. Here one can enjoy the taste of asucculent Bison Burger, along with soup, Elk or Venison treats, or cake. Also great to try is the Elderflower Cordial - an excellent thirst quencher on a hot day.
Of all the animals at Bush Farm, the most awesome is the bison. It is the largest animal in North America, standing 2m high, and weighing in at over a ton. It has a distinctive hump between the head and shoulders, with a thick, shaggy pelt covering the head, neck and shoulders. It also has a distinctive beard, and black horns. These bison can distinguish smells coming from over 3 miles away. From July to September, during the rutting season, the powerful “bull roaring” can be heard for miles around, as the males challenge each other for the right to mate. There are two different species of bison in North America: the plains bison and the wood bison. The wood bison is lighter-coloured, taller and less stocky than the plains bison. To see the bison at Bush Farm, you can walk up onto a viewing platform with chairs, where you can sit and watch these magnificent animals.
Guanacos, also found at Bush Farm, are native to the dry and mountainous areas of South America. The name comes from the Quechua word “huanaco.” The most noticeable thing about them is their large, alert and intelligent eyes, which you can see in the picture to the right. The colour of their fur varies slightly from light to dark brown, and they have small, straight ears. They gather nutrients by licking all the condensate from the cacti they encounter. The guanaco is also an excellent swimmer.
In the same field as the guanaco are the Rhea. Another native of South America, the Rhea is a large flightless bird, reminiscent of the ostrich. Indeed, it is often referred to as the Pampas ostrich. It grows to about 5 feet high, and can way over 50 pounds. They are very inquisitive birds. The two in the field I visited came from about 150m away to nose at the strange man with the camera. They even had a peck at it! They are complete posers, and are excellent photographic models.
Back to North America now, and to an animal most of us want to have as a pet (well, a cute well behaved one perhaps). The raccoon is a well know animal, mainly because it eats almost anything and gets almost everywhere. In its enclosure at the farm, make sure you look up in the trees, and you can get some great pics of the little troopers jumping about in the branches. Raccoons catch a lot of their food in the water, and are even known to wash their prey before eating it. They are rather daring about the locations they choose for their dens, and can sometime be found in people's attics!
Now for something even cuter: bring on the prairie dog! The most social member of the squirrel family, the prairie dog lives in communities in burrows that can stretch for up to 100 feet! The tunnels usually slope down about 15 feet, before levelling off at about 20 feet. In their extensive "towns," as their burrows are called, they store food, and safeguard their offspring. Due to the large nature of the tunnels, they can easily escape from predators or floods. The trick to getting good pics is to stand very still by the opening of the tunnels, as they can sense your vibrations if you walk around.
Also to be seen at the Farm are a pair of beautiful owls in an enclosure, and a magnificent piggy, which can be seen in the photo on the right. Do check out the goats as well, as they like visitors. Most of the animals are used to humans, and to people taking pictures of them, but, as always, be respectful.
But it's not just the animals that make Bush Farm such an interesting place to visit. The land that makes up the Farm is full of interesting and fun things as well. There is a children's area, with swings and slides, plus a more "adult" swing in one of the fields. You can see me modelling this in the pic to the left, all in the name of research, of course! There is also a birch wood, with a fantastic atmosphere. It feels as if there are still old druids there performing their rituals. In one of the clearings you can find an area with many traditional Native American items, such as Dream Catchers, in the trees. There is also a great swamp area, as you can see in the pic above, by which you can sit and read, or just 'be' for a while. All in all, it's a great place to visit.
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