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Chasing Aurora

03 February 2018 05:23AM Viking Raid

Why do we travel?

When I told work I wouldn't be available from the 27th of December 2017 until the 20th of January 2018, I said - and I quote - "I'll be in the frozen north, chasing the Aurora Borealis." Above everything else, that was what I wanted to see.

The surface of our planet is wrapped around a magnetic core, six sextillion spinning tonnes of iron engine, converting the slow burn of nuclear decay into heat, motion, and a sprawling tangle of magnetic fields.

Separated by six thousand kilometres of rock and metal, and another hundred and fifty million of open space, is our sun. That's a different kind of nuclear engine, one powered by creation rather than decay. Deep inside the sun, two atoms become one - well, one and some change - and that stream of leftover particles is our light, our heat, our solar wind.

Across the gulf of space and through an entire planet's worth of mass, these two engines lock together at our planet's poles. No - that's too mechanical. They dance together. The interaction of the impossibly deep and the unimaginably distant sets the the sky between them on fire.

A pilgrimage to the sublime

Every journey, I would argue, is about looking for something. Seeking something. In this case, I think I was travelling to feel humbled. Maybe even insignificant. To feel awe, and a little dread. Also, arguably, to feel cold. The Northern Lights were my shining example, but they weren't the only big impressive thing I sought out there.

Which is probably for the best, since I didn't see them. Not for lack of trying, either. Every clear night I got, I stayed up past my bedtime. I set alarms for midnight and went outside in subzero temperatures. It was never a sure thing - we were waiting for earth weather and space weather, two notoriously chaotic systems, to align. And this time they didn't.

So does that mean I failed?

I mean, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. Especially since Lochie stayed up there, and saw them about two weeks after we got home. But that doesn't mean I didn't find that thing I was chasing. I found it in the mountains and the glaciers and the mist-shrouded geothermal vents. I found it in the rugged highlands of Skye and the winding roads threaded through them. I found it in an astonishing variety of waterfalls, lagoons, lochs, and other large bodies of water. I found it in the age of dying ruins and the vitality of living cities.

Travelling To or Travelling From?

Our Viking Raid didn't bring back treasure. It didn't bring back astonishing new discoveries. It didn't even bring back stunning pictures of the Aurora. But it did bring back the most important prize of all: Perspective.

Hold on, let me remove my tongue from my cheek.

Let's not labour under the illusion that this was anything more than a holiday. I've been trying to avoid that word, substituting 'trip' or 'travels' or 'adventure' - but that's what it was. A burning desire to get away from it all and feel dwarfed by the majesty of nature is just as much a holiday as getting away from it all and watching your troubles drift away on the beach. Wrapping it up in the trappings of adventure makes it more palatable, and it's an essential part of the illusion, but it doesn't change the nature of the thing. It's all escapism. This is just escapism with a Romantic twist.

I chased this particular brand of escapism because, after four years in the same job and two degrees at the same university, I wanted to be reminded that the everyday bullshit doesn't matter. Which is absurd. I'm so lucky to be able to do this. I have a job that won't mind me just not showing up during one of our busiest times. I'm lucky to live somewhere education is accessible enough for me to casually pick up another degree. There are people for whom comfortable stability is the thing you chase, and change and 'adventure' is what you desperately want to escape. Everyday bullshit isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

One day, I'd like to travel with purpose. I'd like to travel in a way that I can legitimately call it 'travel', maybe even 'adventure', and not 'holidaying'. I'd like to be making something, or learning something, or discovering something, or sharing something.

Until then, though, comfortable stability plus adventurous holidays is still a pretty freaking awesome thing to be able to do.

This has been Viking Raid. Thank you for joining us.

northern lights over a frozen lake. photo by lochie

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The Kit List

03 February 2018 02:55AM viking-raid

This is going to be really interesting for some people, and really boring for others: Here's some of the nerd gear I used while travelling.

I kind of hate taking laptops away with me. They take up a lot of space, they go flat, and you need to drag a whole lot of chargers and adapters and stuff with you to keep them working. Phones are great - they're tiny and so much more capable than they used to be, but for actually making content they're sometimes a little lacking.

I went phone-only this time, and I think I've found a happy, if dorky, medium. That's largely thanks to two bits of gear that let me get text and images into my smartphone as easily, if not more easily, than I would a PC.


Blogging while you're away is tricky for two reasons.

The first is that you're writing much more than usual, so any problems you have with your publishing process are magnified. The second is that the difficulty of finding things like power, internet access, and somewhere to sit still for a bit is also magnified.

I think I've finally found a solution. And it's just about the dorkiest solution possible.

Since the only think I really needed a laptop for is the keyboard, before I left I picked up one of these from eBay.

fold-out bluetooth keyboard

This is a fold-out bluetooth keyboard, which talks to my phone. It's just about full size, and reasonably comfortable to type on. It charges from micro-usb, which means that all of my stuff can use one set of chargers, and not really have to worry about international adaptors. And the whole lot is way lighter and takes up way less space than a laptop, which is always a bonus.

Unfortunately, you look like a complete dweeb when you use it. That part I have yet to solve.


So I kind of got into photography specifically for this trip. I figured that I was going to some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it'd be downright disrespectful to just take photos on my phone. Before I left, I grabbed a Sony RX100 Mark 3. It's smaller and lighter than a DSLR and removes the temptation of buying many shiny lenses. Plus, there was at least one data point indicating that it can do an okay job at astrophotography - which something I'm pretty likely to want to use it for.

It let me do fun things like long-exposure waterfalls and amazing sky photos. The one thing it didn't do is let me photograph the Aurora Borealis. Mostly because we didn't see it.

The Mark 3 has a neat trick too - it can talk to smartphones. You can use your phone as a remote shutter, and you can also use it to grab photos from your SD card. No card readers required. Yesssss.

One last plug: On top of the camera - or rather, underneath it - was a GorillaPod. A friend of mine showed me hers (thank you!), and I ended up getting one for Christmas. These things are everywhere now, but basically as long as you're willing to improvise you can keep your camera still pretty easily for way less bulk than a regular tripod.

gorillapod stuck to a lamp post

I write this stuff while I'm on holiday, and edit it, and post it, mostly for myself. Some people journal - I just do it publicly. And it's nice to be able to point people somewhere when they ask how you're doing or what you're up to - it saves a lot of money on postcards.

If I was travelling just to take photos, I'd probably still bring a laptop, and a hard drive, and hey, maybe a real tripod too. If I was travelling just to write, I'd take a laptop too. But since I'm travelling for... well, other reasons, this is just enough to get by and still do a decent job.

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Comparative Museology

31 January 2018 12:00AM Viking Raid

I haven't written much about museums this trip. Let's change that.

It's partly because we've been to quite a few of them, and partly because describing what's in a museum isn't super interesting, and partly because I've had just about as many hot takes as one person can have about the nature of museums and written about them in every way imaginable.

So how about this: One thing I learned at each museum. Ready? Go.

a collection of war memorabiliaa plaque, explaining that it was just some random bloke's collection

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: If you collect enough of something, and put it in a nice box, it becomes art, and might one day be included in your national museum.

The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik: Longhouses were built around a hearth, and the size of your hearth is a status symbol. This longhouse has an unusually large hearth, and its occupants were probably proud of it.

The Phallological Museum, Reykjavik: If you collect enough of something, it might become the museum. And the size of your... collection... becomes a status symbol. This museum has an unusually large collection, and its curator is perhaps too proud of it.

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh: Before the installation of the first trans-Pacific cable in the early 1900s telegrams across the Pacific from the US travelled via the trans-Atlantic cable around the entire planet. This either caused, or was caused by, Britain's early dominance in the telegraph industry - I was a little fuzzy on that.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh: Scotland's crown jewels were once locked in a box and forgotten about for like a hundred years until some bloke decided that maybe we should check that they are actually where everyone said they were. Spoiler alert: they were.

Escher in het Palais, The Hague: Perhaps unsurprisingly, M C Escher and Roger Penrose were penpals.

lochie contepmplates a mondrian at the Gementesmuseum

The Gementesmuseum, The Hague: The only time that having bits of art emblazoned on your mug doesn't feel vaguely like a cash-in by the museum is when making their art part of everyday objects was kind of the artist's whole deal.

The Ann Frank House, Amsterdam: Nothing seems to inspire regular people to write and express themselves like the story of a girl who was killed before her work was published. And maybe that's the whole point. Because maybe if enough people write about it, it won't happen again.

Micropia, Amsterdam: Ironically, most modern antibiotics come from bacteria that live in dirt.

grace contemplates an ant colony at Micropia

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Obscura Tourer

20 January 2018 12:00AM Viking Raid

We're a half hour metro ride out of Rotterdam, in Spijkennisse. On the outside, this just looks like any other Dutch suburb, but don't be fooled. Hold on to your scarves, kids. This is where things get weird.

1. The City.

We had no itinerary going into Rotterdam, besides buying Lochie some snow boots. Somehow in our wandering route across the city, we stumbled across our first two items from the Atlas.

On our way out of an enormous indoor outdoor market, we spotted the Cube Houses and went in to take a look. I havent included pictures of these, because I didn't take any - but there are plenty online. You can even rent a couple of them on Airbnb, which is just about all they're good for, in my opinion. They're far too impractical (and far too 80s) for everyday living.

We also, quite by accident, stumbled across the Statue of Santa. I haven't included pictures of this either. Not because I didn't take any, but because I know my mum reads this blog and I really don't want to have to discuss that Christmas tree Santa's holding with her.

And at that point our paths diverged. As Lochie and Grace went to run an errand or two, I got on a train.

2. The Mountain

For three weeks I'd been chasing steadily more impressive mountains, but this one - unexpectedly - was one of the most wonderful.

a mountain of books

Books. As far as the eye can see, lined up from floor to ceiling, winding in terraces like gardens, books.

a terrace of books

This place is literally called Book Mountain. You might think it's a fancy bookshop or a national archive, but nope. It's just a regular neighbourhood library, in a pretty unremarkable chunk of suburbia outside Rotterdam.

a garden of books

The roof is all glass, and sunset was a good time to come. All that sunlight on all those spines of all those books - and almost all of them in a language I can't read, being read by people I can't talk to. It's like a special circle of hell. The most beautiful library I've ever seen, and I can't read a single word of it.

It's all very well to come here and take a Pilgrimage to the Book Mountain as a tourist attraction, but I'm the only one looking up. Everyone else is engrossed: in their books, in their movies, in their study, in their Lego. For them, this isn't architecture, it's a public amenity. And even on a regular weekday around closing time, it's still filled with people.

The culture you build is the culture you get, I guess. Maybe my ambition should be to live somewhere they build libraries instead of stadia.

 i have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library

3. The Bridges

"This is such a quality prank." - Lochie, 2018.

Next time you have some Euros in your hand (which, I admit, might be a while), take a look at the bridges. Every Euro note has a bridge on it.

Like so many things about the EU, the art on the Euro banknote is aggressively neutral. With more countries than there were denominations, choosing real bridges for each note was fraught with political uncertainty - and that's before we even get into who gets which denomination. So they made some up. Seven banknotes, seven imaginary bridges. Problem solved, right?

foreground: a euro note. background: the bridge from that note

That is, until a housing developer in just outside Rotterdam went and built them, and claimed every single bridge for the Dutch.

Well played, The Netherlands. Well played.

 the fictional bridges that became real

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A Jolly Judgement

19 January 2018 12:00AM Viking Raid

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is not, generally speaking, a difficult place to find a pub. It is, however, a mildly tricky place to find a pub that's not catering to tourists and/or people richer than us.

So without further ado, I'd like to present the blog's first pub recommendation: The Jolly Judge. It's in a close, down a scary-looking alley, which is always a good sign. Plus, they have an excellent selection of beers - and they're on Untappd

The really nice thing about rating all the beer you drink is that you're pretty much guaranteed to take a couple of photos with you and your mates every time you go out. I don't know about you, but I pretty rarely take pictures, even on the best nights out at the pub, so it's kind of nice to have something to look back on.

Unfortunately, I dropped my phone on a glacier back in Iceland, which killed the camera. Which is fine, because I had another camera with me. Except that camera is much nicer than the one on my phone, so it has a much shallower depth of field - especially when the aperture is wide open because you're in a dimly lit pub.

All of which is a really long-winded way of saying that I have some photos of us grabbing a drink in a Scottish pub with our mate from uni/high school/primary school on the opposite side of the planet to where we met - but because I was focused on the beer, he's, uh, sort of blurred out and has a glass in front of his face.

foreground: A glass of beeer. background: Liam, Lochie and Helena.

(We did get a pretty decent one of us all after climbing Arthur's Seat - the big hill in the middle of Edinburgh. So at least there's that, right mum?)

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