Narvik, Norway

December 21st to 22nd, 2017

Kiruna to Narvik map

From Kiruna, we traveled into Norway, heading for Narvik.  From the train, the land looks like it has been dusted with talcum powder. With the acute angle of the sun, the shadow and colour combinations are endless. This is a land of stark contrasts that is also reflected in their long history.

Throughout WW1, Norway tried to remain out of the conflicts. Rather, they supplied both Germany and Britain with vast supplies of fish. Anti-German sentiment in the Norwegian population enabled the government to highly-favor Britain with support from the large Norwegian shipping fleet while keeping Germany appeased by still trading with them. It was a delicate balance that was going to cost dearly in the end.

The Norwegian historian Olav Riste refers to Norway as The Neutral Ally. When Norway gained independence in 1905, their new government decided that in all matters of international conflict, they should remain neutral. Since the European powers had no desire for unrest in Scandinavia, they signed an agreement respecting Norway’s neutrality.  The generally-agreed sentiment was that Norway should remain neutral if war broke out, relying on help from Great Britain if attacked.

By Christmas Eve, 1916, such a trading position had become untenable to the British government.  Norway had been using its massive merchant fleet to sell fish as well as copper ore, nickle and iron to Germany. That had become vital to their war effort. In the same way, Norway imported huge amounts of coal from Britain that supported their industry. Britain threatened to cut off their supplies. The Norwegian Government felt they had no option but to comply with the demand. This coincided with Germany’s expansion of unrestricted submarine warfare that began in early 1917. A total of 436 Norwegian vessels had already been sunk from 1914 to 1917 and by the end of the conflict, 847 ships and 1,150 sailors would be lost. This created an increasingly anti-German sentiment throughout Norway. Throughout the war,  both commerce and political sympathies tied Norway and Britain together while simultaneously challenging their long-term relationship.

By the start of WW2, Hitler had already recognized the strategic importance of Narvic. It was a natural, deep-water harbor that remained clear of ice right throughout the winter. More importantly, it was close to the massive Kiruna iron-ore deposits that were deemed vital for Nazi manufacturing.  By 1933, the radical Norwegian politician Vidkum Quisling had left the Farmer’s Party and founded the fascist Nasjonal Samling.  The party had little influence until April 1940 when they tried to seize power on their own terms during the German invasion of Norway. Their first attempts failed but from 1942 to 1945, Quisling served as the puppet Prime Minister of Norway, supporting the Nazi occupation. He directly participated in Hitler’s genocides, particularly among the Yugoslav people in Norway.

By the end of the war, the Norwegian War Tribunals had found over 50,000 Norwegians  guilty of some form of treason. Of these, only 25, including Quisling. were executed.

Neutrality here in Norway was challenged by a mass of conflicting allegiances that are typical of those found in any country going through a war. There is never a clear black-and-white separation between the “good” and the “bad” forces. Once war comes to a country, then for the generations who experience it, it never really ends. At the Narvik War Museum, they express this clearly as you walk in:

There was war

There was war, there is war. This is something I had been thinking through recently as I reflected on my father’s experience fighting in Europe. For my father, it seemed like the war ended but it never really did. He lived in the light of what he went through until he died; none of this left him, ever. I grew up as a boy with few if any “war toys” and no guns. He talked about the great experiences but only towards the end of his life did he begin to share about the awful experiences of losing companions and about the futility of the war he had been part of. My mother shared with me harrowing experiences of living through the Blitz in London.

In 2012, I walked through Dachau Concentration Camp in the snow and spent some time alone in the prisoner’s yard, listening, feeling the cold, Before we started, our guide at Dachau, Tobias, had cautioned us:

Dachau Entrance“Please do not try to make sense of what you see here. There is no sense to any of it. None of this gained Hitler or the Nazi’s anything. None of it made political or financial sense in any way that would benefit the German people. Rather, it robbed us of a rich vein of German society, some of our finest lawyers, doctors, painters, scientists, musicians and thinkers.

If you believe evil actually exists as something real, then here it existed for no other reason except to do evil. Evil is in no way, ever, logical or amenable to reason.”

The contrasts the museum expresses here can touch you deeply. The two boys below are sitting on an unexploded German G7 torpedo in the fjords. This was the standard weapon used throughout the conflict here. Deadly when it worked, however it frustrated the Germans immensely. They had obtained its navigation technology illegally from the Japanese in 1928, in violation of their agreements with the Allies. However, its guidance systems could not cope well with being this close to the Magnetic North Pole and it was always erratic.

Red Cross Front Sisters

Approximately five hundred Norwegian women worked as Red Cross nurses during the German occupation. These Front Sisters treated the sick and wounded, mainly along the front lines of the Soviet border. Many, but not all were members of the Norwegian Nazi party. Most were in their early twenties, the youngest being only sixteen. Usually, nurses were unarmed but each of them were issued with one of these German “Red Cross Daggers”, in-violation of typical Red Cross protocols of the time.


This doll was carried aboard a fishing boat by a one-year old child, escaping across the fjord in January, 1942. At that time, the Germans had sent their most feared warship into the fjord, the Tirpitz. The photo below shows the depth of its armor plate, retrieved from the wreck later. It took the Allies seven attempts to sink it, resulting in the death of 971 of its 1,700 crew.

The pictures below are of a German Personal Submarine. Based on the design of the G7 torpedo, it was intended for a one-way trip.

Such is the desperation that war engenders. We turn our greatest creative efforts into our most destructive assets.

This is some of the stuff that I do not love.

Kiruna: on being smarter…

December 19th, 2017

Early the following morning after our trip with the huskies, Jane and I are getting fitted out for our next exploration. This time we are being much smarter. Our guide Mattias is checking each person in our party, making sure boots, mittens and coveralls are all the right size. “Yes”, he agrees with me “it is still baby-winter out there but it can get cold very quickly where we are going. I want you to have fun; you don’t have to get cold with it.” This guy immediately gets my vote as the  #1 tour guide so far; there is no rush, get it right…

Jane and her gear


Soon after we leave, Mattias is still getting to know everyone. He only takes these tours a few times each week. The rest of the time he is driving the biggest, meanest model of Volvo dump truck in the iron ore mines at Kiruna. His truck is the heaviest made so far, carrying 90 tonnes of raw iron ore with a new custom Volvo design and drivechain. Jane and he swap truck stories for the rest of the drive; what else did you expect <grin>?

We are planning to ride Ski-Doo’s through the forest and tundra to visit the IceHotel on the Torne River. The Ski-Doo is apparently iconic here; since the 1950’s, the Canadians have claimed it as one of their greatest inventions. Mattias shows us photos of his personal one. He is grinning just as wide and enthusiastic as any bike rider or jetski enthusiast I know. The appropriate standard response appears to be much nodding and “ooooo” while he extols it’s virtues.

There are six of us travelling today on four Ski-Doo’s. Swedish Marital Tip#1; when your wife is this excited, let her drive first <grin>.

Later on across the plains, we will be hitting 50 km per hour. Apart from getting a cold hand, this would be the perfect mobile camera platform for a real expert.

Around fifteen kilometers later, we arrive at the IceHotel. That deserves its own page here with all of Jane’s photos.

Later, we drove back to where the others were ice-fishing. Unfortunately they had caught nothing but our host had that sorted already –  fish anyway courtesy of Mattias’s home cooking.

Ice fishing_01

Tea, coffee or this brew made from lingonberries. I had read about them; Nansen made hot drinks for his men in Greenland. Only he mixed it with pure alcohol. “Ah yes” observed Mattias. “Jet fuel….”


We love this stuff…amazing day and everything was warm.




























Kiruna: on being very cold…

December 18th, 2017

Warning: This article contains descriptions of extreme cold that may be disturbing to some readers. Try this site if you would prefer some lighter reading.Mary Poppins_01

It is 7:15 pm, deep into the Arctic wilderness beyond Kauppinen where it is now -28ºC. Jane and I are sitting in a traditional Sami tent, trying desperately to get warm again around the fire with Mary Poppins.

Daniella, her owner explains that nine-year old Mary is far from “practically perfect in every way“, unlike her namesake. “She is too old now to lead but she refuses to stay at home so I hook her into the traces and she runs just as fast as the other huskies. It is what she is born to do and she lives for it.”

Mary was obviously once an alpha and still commands the respect of the younger huskies. She is the only dog inside the tent warming herself by the fire and when we go outside, they do not challenge her.

Jane and I are frozen. We have ridden on the dogsled for nearly seven kilometers through the night. Our socks are too thin, our mittens too big and our extremities like many of the others with us are bitterly cold.

This is the coldest environment we have been in and we still have so much to learn. That is what exploring is about; this is not a resort in Fiji <grin>.

And with that comes a beauty. It was hard to photograph much but looking out across a dark forest illuminated only by Daniella’s headlight, the view is beyond description. We are out here to see the Aurora and the prospects are good. The Arctic sky is full of stars our cameras cannot capture; we are frozen but not depressed.

I can only remember one other time feeling colder. Ten years ago I was speaking at the Millbrook Conference Center in Arrowtown, New Zealand. About 10:00 pm that evening, I was walking back through the chilly, South Island autumn in just a suit and shirt, feeling just fine. Half way to my chalet on the far edge of the center, I got caught up in a hailstorm. Within a couple of minutes I was drenched and feeling nausious. I remember running to my door, fumbling with my keys in the darkness while trembling and wanting to be sick. A few minutes later I was standing fully-dressed in a warm shower thinking “I won’t be wearing this suit tomorrow…”

Perspective helps so much when we find ourselves in challenging places. On the sled as we headed back I remember thinking that I was very, very privileged. Scott and Amundsen survived at -40°C for months at a time with clothing far more limited than what we had. Also, just as I had at Millbrook, I had a hot shower to go back to and food that they could only dream of.

Our guide Mattias the following day was a little critical of our guides that night: “That was not right. The coldest I have to take people out in is -50°C, often for eight hours at a time. That’s why I checked all your gear individually before we left and I have been checking you all day. You do not know how to survive out here yet so mistakes can be deadly.” You can read about our day with Mattias in my next post.

No reward without some pain, eh? I love this stuff (noted while standing in a hot shower…)


Exploring: Luleå to Kiruna

Map Lulea to KirunaDecember 18th, 2017

Yesterday, we left Luleå and traveled north by train, deep into Swedish Lappland.  About a quarter of Sweden’s surface area is in Lappland and we were heading for Kiruna.  Luleå University of Technology has a department of Space Science here.

Always, it is is the light that captivates me here. The sun spends most of the day low on the horizon, so shadows cast in completely different angles to what I am used to in the Pacific. When the sky is clear, it is a deep, light blue.  When there is cloud cover, you see amber and silver.

The journey by train takes only three hours, but when you step out onto the platform at any of the stops along the way, you realize that you really are far away in the wilderness.

Swedish people love their dogs. A recent twelve-year study of 3.4 million Swedish people suggested that dog owners had a 20 percent lower risk of dying compared to people who didn’t have a dog. For those who lived alone, that rose to a 33 percent lower risk of death (Mubanga et al., 2017). You see practical things they do here to make it easier for dog owners; on our train, there was a separate section just for owners and their dogs, separated by a glass divider.


For all the train-enthusiasts in my world, here you go….

Mubanga, M., Byberg, L., Nowak, C., Egenvall, A., Magnusson, P. K., Ingelsson, E., & Fall, T. (2017). Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death–a nationwide cohort study. Scientific reports7(1), 15821.

What matters in Luleå: leaving..

December 17th, 2017

Today is my last day here. Honestly, I would be most happy to stay and just keep going.
21686208_1876841155666597_810073705584762191_nThis was my first research posting. That has proven to be a unique experience, both different to what I expected yet familiar. I was sent here to experience study at a different university and work alongside Dr Gulnara Zhabelova. She and I have authored research papers together over the last year with Roopak and it was great to come and see her world. We had particular problems to work on and I had responsibilities for delivering part of it. It felt like we got a lot done and we shall continue working through her winter/my summer until it is finished.

Yes we can do a lot remotely but there is really no replacement for coming and actually seeing her world. It gives you a fresh perspective, one that I have cherished. I think the staff here at Luleå are still surprised that I did not get sick of the endless snow. I keep explaining to them that I really am part polar-bear…

One of my PhD supervisors, Dr Jenny Gibb, spends part of her year travelling like this and I have been endlessly jealous of her adventures. She tells me stories of the people she has met and the students she has worked alongside. Placements like this are obviously quite addictive…now I have stories of my own to share. You also establish long-term collaborations with like-minded people. Ultimately, research is publish-or-perish so writing with other people you like is a huge advantage.

So, I could get quite maudlin and depressed but I won’t.  I shall just post some of my best pictures from this trip. There are lots more to catch up on that I will post later. Now, this polar bear is off to explore the rest of Sweden and Norway….but.. probably not the ABBA Museum in Stockholm.

December 1st was the first day of Advent. I arrived early to find this brazier burning in the middle of the road leading to my office. Later that morning, we celebrated Advent Fika, a traditional meal of torte and coffee in the house pictured above, It is located on the edge of the campus among fragrant pine trees and is used for staff functions. Gulnara, Hasan and Chen-Wei took me inside this warm, traditional Swedish home environment, with a blazing log fire.

Last week I had the opportunity to develop a new course here and deliver the first three sessions. Thirty-one students, exploring the LaTeX typesetting language that I teach at AUT. We re-branded all the material for Luleå so that others could take it on and continue teaching it after I leave. In the process, I learnt a new LaTeX development system called Overleaf that I now adore; it is what I will be using to teach all subsequent courses. Beautiful, well-designed software.

Here, design and creativity are key drivers. While exploring a few days ago, I came across these student projects on display. I think I could happily work with a robotic vacuum cleaner if it was designed like this <grin>

I also had an opportunity to visit their FESTO robotic laboratory. We REALLY need one of these at AUT <grin>. I had to ask if anyone had programmed them to play soccer with tennis balls; the laboratory technician was a bit sheepish and assured me that they had not…

Right outside the FESTO laboratory is a student project laboratory. Yes, that is a high-performance bicycle they are designing. I stood and watched for a while, fascinated to see the interaction while they worked.


Onward folks… there are more adventures waiting…









What matters in Luleå : my Arctic cabin

Sunday morning, up bright and early for matins and assignments. My wife Jane is on her way here, a wonderful long chat with my faithful friend Nic McClean via Messenger (thank you for helping to keep me sane up here – love you so much brother).
BW In his cabin_01
My cabin in the snow. It has always been a dream of mine to just get my head down in a cold climate, retreat and study with no distractions (except perhaps for the coffee shop Cafe Lina next door…). This time really is a dream come true.
Scott in his cabin
How different my experience is to that of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, writing all those years ago in the Antarctic. The photo above is of him at his Cape Evans hut on 7th October 1911. He was doing pretty much what I am now, pens and pencils, keeping his journal. Only for him, unlike me, it would be many years before anyone back home could read his thoughts. I am so blessed.

Ernest Shackleton’s team had similar thoughts too when they were on the ice in 1915. This entry in Shackleton’s journal was contributed by one of his crew, Thomas Orde-Lees:

Mobile phones on the ice

That is eerily prescient; he was imagining what a mobile phone and video messaging (“wireless telescopes“?) might be like in 2015. We take so much for granted today.
 Now, to finish an assignment before the end of the day, take a walk with Bottomly, and maybe coffee late afternoon with my supervisor here Dr Gulnara and her husband Hasan. They love walking in the snow on Sunday afternoons…
 I love it too.

What matters in Luleå: Getting out early..

3rd December, 2017

I have spoken before about “arctic cabin fever” and the need to get outside as soon as you get up to shake off the dark and cold. Bottomly and I took a very early morning walk today, starting at about 6:30 am.

Bottomly_1 - Copy

“I feel like I am at home here” Bottomly mused while we were walking. “Of all the Rockweather Guys, I suppose I am the only one who can genuinely claim to be a Polar Bear, what with being white and a bear.. Unlike you, I don’t need all that Icebreaker clothing you’ve got on either. I am a true native here !!”

“So you might have been born here, up near the Arctic circle?”‘

“” he quickly replied. “There is a label sown to my back that says ‘Dry Clean Only’ and ‘Made in China’.”

Cottages like this are everywhere in this area. The morning arctic sky was something I quickly grew to love..

What matters in Luleå: Sunday worship

Sunday, 19th November, 2017

It is my first Sunday here so I was keen to find a church to attend. A quick Google search turned up very little but the one that attracted me was the Frälsningsarmén i Luleå, the Salvation Army in Luleå. I have never visited the Sallies, so this was going to be an adventure. By 4:00pm it is pitch-black here so this was going to be a fifteen-minute walk in the snow,

The Sallies sign in the darknessI was not disappointed…and I had so much fun.

From the end of a long street, I could see their shield shining in the darkness. It would have been hard to miss, down the end of long lane off one of the main one of the main streets. 

Once inside, out of the snow, I talked to a few people but found only one who spoke English. Svenya, also known as Christina or Trish explained that she has lots of Facebook friends overseas who just call her Trish.

All through the service, she helped me with hymn numbers and Bible verse references….because the whole service was in Swedish. Sallies worshiping

The service was a delight. No matter that not a word of English was spoken. I picked up enough “Amen’s”, “Hallejujah’s” and “Jesus’s” to follow along.

The officer with the accordion led the congregation of only seven in loud, cheerful hymns. Before each hymn started, she showed me using her fingers what the hymn number was going to be, digit-by-digit. So I got 1-3-7 hand-by-hand. She also managed Psalm 1-3-9 and Luke 2-0. By the time we got to Hymn 552,

The hymn book

I still had no idea what each hymn meant but later on, I was able to sing along to “What a Friend we have in Jesus” in English <laugh>.

The Sallies have been in Luleå since the late 1800’s . The church has amazing photos around the wall, this one from 1919:


Sally officers 1920

Sally officer 1920

Then tea and cakes with the ladies after the service. The officer at the back was the one playing the accordion and Christina is at the right taking tea to someone.

Sallies at tea

There was something so special about this place. They worked so hard during the service to keep me involved though they spoke so little English. So typical of the Salvation Army philosophy of their faith: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35




Moving in…

Welcome to Rockweather

The research trip to Luleå starts soon. Boxes, cables, research assistants… seems like this move into our own blog for Rockweather has been a long time coming. Dr Gen Selway and Grace du Chateau-Chien  talked me into this over coffee since I have been moaning about feeling restless at Facebook. I will introduce you to my faithful research assistants in more detail later on; sufficient to say I am a PhD candidate at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. Dr Gen and Grace were each introduced to me by the two precious mentors who have accompanied me faithfully through this research journey since it began.

Moving in.jpgThey both thought that I needed looking-after in my laboratory so each of them arranged a research assistant for me, quite independently. Through the long hours of study and writing, you would be amazed how many proof-reading issues we discover together just by me reading out loud to these two gorgeous companions.

And it is not so unusual around here; in the SERL (Software Engineering Research Laboratory) where I am based, almost everyone has a companion on their desk, often a gift from a family member. In the same way scuba divers are taught never to dive alone, research is always better undertaken as part of a research group with mentors; never dive alone, never study alone.

Ok..better get back to the boxes since Grace says she needs a refill and she can’t reach the laboratory coffee machine without help…

oh, and you will notice my tag line often…

I love this stuff