HOLIDAY OCT/NOV 2010

SCANDINAVIA.


My route to Alta and back.

After much deliberation this year, I decided to visit the North Cape, (Nordkapp) the most northerly point in Europe. I had planned to go to Morocco with a convoy of other travellers, but after pricing the trip up, decided against it. The tour company I intended travelling with advised me of all the things I would need for the trip, rooftop tent, spare fuel, water, tools, spares etc etc. This amounted to around £2,000. They would cater for the group on a daily basis en-route and lead us on a 15 day trip through Morocco. I would naturally pay for my own fuel and make my way to southern Spain to join the group. It all sounded great until I was informed that I would have to pay a single supplement of around £350. I resented having to pay a supplement considering I was bringing my own vehicle to the party, my own camping equipment and everything else, so backed out of it. I figured I could stay in a 5 star hotel for the same length of time and still come out better off.

For some time Iíd fancied crossing the Arctic Circle. I donít know why it appealed to me other than the sense of adventure getting there. I thought of everyone else heading south for their holidays, so now Iíd definitely crossed the trip to Africa off my shopping list, the idea seemed more and more appealing. I studied the route and terrain on Google maps, read all I could on driving in Scandinavia and made a list of the things I thought I may need to survive. I didnít underestimate the journey but my timing could have been a bit better as by the time I got into Lapland, the weather that would hit Britain a couple of weeks later,  had already started to show what lay ahead.

Holiday2010 (1).jpg (367574 bytes)  I spent a couple of months during the latter part of the summer gathering together bits and pieces to make my journey as comfortable as possible. One of the nice things about the LR3 is that I can fold all 5 of the rear seats down, which allows room to put an inflatable mattress in the back and sleep in the car if necessary. I didnít intend doing it very often, but it was nice to know that I could if the need arose. I had some basic curtains made up in order to offer a degree of privacy. These  would attach to the grab handles. I got a couple of squares of foam cushioning so that I could blank out the rear windows and treated myself to an electric pump for the air bed. I didnít fancy the thought of trying to blow it up with a foot pump in sub zero temperatures, or worse, in the dark. I collected all the miscellaneous items together, reflective jacket, ( compulsory in most parts of Europe), spare bulbs,  spare wiper blades, tow rope, jump leads, basic tools, 2 sleeping bags and placed most of them into a large plastic container which would be easier to manage, rather than having to handle each item individually. I tried and tested the air bed and pump, arranged international coverage on my insurance, AA break down cover for Europe and was satisfied that I had planned as best I could. I booked on the Euro tunnel, mainly because Iíd used it before and was impressed with the lack of hassle I had previously experienced.  

My adventure, (I was careful to call it an Ďadventureí rather than a holiday, as I knew it was going to be hard work) had two goals, The first and most important was to cross the Arctic Circle. The second was to reach the Nordkapp. I had already decided that the latter would only be attempted if I was absolutely satisfied that it was safe to do so at the time. If it was possible, I wanted to reach the Nordkapp on my birthday. I booked into a hotel in Bremen, Germany for my first night, my intention was to get as far North as possible and reach Sweden in two days. Once there, my adventure would start.

Holiday2010 (11).JPG (205546 bytes)  From the hotel in Bremen I headed for Hamburg,  then onto Lubeck and onto the A47,  crossing the Baltic sea, ( a tiny section of it, bit like going from Scilly to Penzance and claiming to have crossed the Atlantic) on the  ferry from Fehmarn to Redbyhavn, then after continuing toward Malmo, I took the E4 toward Stockholm . Due to my choice of tunnel departure time, most of the drive from Calais to Bremen had been done in the dark. Today was a pleasant relief with bright sunshine and fairly quiet roads. The ferry crossing was pleasant and lasted about 45 minutes. The ship had two restaurants, a shop, a Bureaux-de-change and ample seating both inside and out. A large indoor viewing area situated at the head of the ship, made eating oneís lunch and sipping oneís coffee whilst admiring the view, a pleasurable experience.

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The drive through Sweden was easy going. The roads are good and duelled  carriageway as far as 'Gavle', about 100 miles north of Stockholm. Although I considered Stockholm to be the most southerly City in my adventure, it was easy to forget how far north I'd travelled. I was already on the same latitude as the Orkneys. I pressed on past Gavle where the roads became mostly triple carriageway (two way traffic with a central lane, the priority changing every 5 miles or so to allow overtaking). Just outside the town of Umea is a road which forms a southerly loop and partially encircles a stretch of water, which I assumed to be an inlet of the Baltic sea. I'd read that so long as you're careful about where you park up and the limitations of your stay, it is widely accepted in Scandinavia for people to park and sleep overnight. I needed to test sleeping in the back of the car just in case I had to do it for real at a later date. I drove off the main road and onto the road in question and followed it until I came across an area next to the water with a small jetty. There were several small open spaces between groups of trees and I realised that if I parked in one of the spaces, I could not be seen from the road. I remember thinking at the time, what a wonderful spot it would have made for a campsite.  I eat one of the sandwiches I'd bought from the last garage I'd visited, drank a cup of coffee from the flask I'd filled from the coffee machine there, treated myself to a mars bar and sat back for a while just looking over the water. It was getting dark so I folded down the rear seats, got the electric pump out and pumped up the mattress. My first problem!! While testing the positioning of the bed at home, I'd failed to consider the amount of other luggage I'd be carrying. Although I could get in through the back tailgate, I couldn't get out that way, so had no choice but to use the rear passenger door. I realised that I would have to move my toolbox, the plastic bin with my survival gear and holdall to the front seats, leaving only a suitcase in the rear. It was no hardship but if I had to make a quick getaway for any reason, I'd have to relocate everything to the rear before I could move. I rigged up the curtain I'd had made, which was effective but it hampered my movement and in order to get out in the middle of the night, I would have to unhook it. Once again, it was no hardship but I was angry with myself for not realising it during the planning process. The pieces of foam rubber fitted the rear windows perfectly and the bed was surprisingly comfortable. I only used one sleeping bag as I needed to test my durability to the cold. It was down to minus 3* but I knew it would be colder where I was headed and I didn't want to use up all my resources at this stage.  I know it would be easy just to keep the engine running and use the heaters to keep warm, but I didn't want to do that unless it was an absolute last resort. The distances in northern Scandinavia are deceiving, I didn't know how plentiful garages would be so the last thing I wanted to do was burn fuel unnecessarily.  

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Handy 12v socket in the back.
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Electric pump for air bed. Noisy little brute but fully inflates mattress in less then 5 mins.
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All cosy.. Just fits nicely with tailgate closed. The curtains I had made aren't being shown in the photo.
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No need to adjust front seats to make room for bed.

I got out of the sleeping bag at around 6am. It was cold and sharp but in a refrshing sort of way. It was still dark but I could see a covering of ice on the car. I was carrying a five litre container of fresh water so used some of it to brush my teeth and wash my face.  I decided it was too damn cold to shave. I picked up my flask and poured out the remaining coffee left over from the day before. It was cold but I didn't care, it was the best coffee I'd tasted in ten hours. I used the pump again to suck out the air from the mattress, then folded everything up neatly. I moved everything I'd placed in the front of the car to it's proper place. It had been a fairly comfortable night but after the lessons I'd learned, I made it my objective not to do it again unless I had no other choice. If I choose to make one of these journeys again, I'll fit a roof box so I can stow all my non-essentials on the roof. This would also help spread the weight as it was surprising just how much I was carrying. With all but the rearmost row of seats in the 'up' position, all that weight was on the back wheels. Under normal circumstances it would have been no problem, but I would learn my lesson the hard way a few days later about being rear heavy. 

Day 4:  Continuing North on the E4 to Lulea, then faced with the decision of which road to take for my journey to Lapland. I decided to take the E10 to Gallivare. I noticed that the days were getting slightly shorter with dusk falling around 3:45pm. Snow and ice were more commonplace though not present all the time. I got to within about 50 miles of the Arctic Circle around 2:30pm and decided that as I wanted to get a photograph actually crossing it, I would be better finding accommodation for the night and setting out for it first thing in the morning. I made enquiries in a garage as to the nearest hotel. I was advised to make a 15 mile detour into the town of 'Overkalix', although the young lady didn't tell me what the accommodation was like. I took her advice and was so glad I did. I stumbled across the 'Grand Arctic hotel'. 

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Views from the hotel

The word 'Grand' stood up to scrutiny. On entry one walked into a large foyer with the reception desk to one side and a raised balcony around the perimeter. There was a lounge, restaurant and bar, all with views over the swimming pool or lake. The rooms were large, bright & clean and contained everything I would need and more. The staff were very friendly and all spoke English very well, in fact during my 11 days driving through Sweden, Lapland, Finland, Finmark and Norway, I never once had a problem with communication. Everyone I met was able to speak English. Vastly different to my trip through Germany and Poland two years earlier. I had a fabulous meal in a fabulous restaurant and a couple of pints in the bar. I used my sojourn here to wind down after 5 days of intensive driving. Next morning  I was keen to get my camera out and make the most of the sunrise. A layer of frost completed the magic. I struggled across the car park with my suitcase, sliding most of the way and managed to lift it into the back of the car. I got in, turned the ignition on, waited a few seconds for the fuel pump to do it's business, turned the key and hey presto, the Land Rover fired up first time. While she warmed up, I scraped the frost of the windows and breathed in an icy blast of morning air. Temperature was down to minus 6 but I was assured that it had sunk lower during the night. I was excited today because if all went well I was about to fulfil my foremost ambition, crossing the Arctic Circle. When I got to the signpost marking the border I felt a little dismayed as I really needed someone to take a picture of me stood under the post. I looked around but there was no-one. In fact there had been no-one since leaving the hotel. I looked along the road in each direction, but no-one. I wanted to savour the moment so stood with my hands in my pockets with my camera slung around my neck, watching my breath vaporise in the cold air, waiting.. for what I didn't know, but I waited never-the-less. 

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So far the journey had been easy going. Although there had been frosty mornings, there had been no snow covered roads, floods, storms or tempests. I felt confident that I would achieve my second goal and reach the Nordkapp,  after all I had no reason to believe otherwise. I set off with a renewed vigour. Approximately 50 miles further on I had my first experience of what lay ahead. Snow began to cover the trees and distant vista. The whole scene began to change and look a deal more foreboding . Another few miles and I was driving on hard packed snow. I was cautious to say the least but after a few more miles I became more confident and was surprised at how much grip I had. This was down to two reasons, one because before I left the UK I'd had a set of General Grabber All Terrain tyres fitted and two, as was explained to me 3 days later, the lower the temperature, the better the grip .  Central Scandinavia has a 'dryer' snow than that of the north or coastal regions and in the cold becomes 'sticky' which grips the rubber of your tyres, very much like the ice around the freezer in your fridge sticks to your hand. I didn't know this at the time and put it down to my expertise as a driver. Boy would I get a big wake up call.

 

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I spent the next night in a caravan park. I drove until around 4pm but it was beginning to get quite dark. I saw the lights of the cabin in the distance and thought I'd use discretion. I looked at the map and figured out that it was too far to the next town and as I didn't know what would be on offer there anyway, I pulled in. The camp was made up of a mixture of accommodation. It was obviously a camp site in summer, there were several static caravans parked up with their inhabitants busying themselves fetching water or firewood. There were also a number of huts or chalets. The lady on reception was friendly but surprised to see a stranger this far north, on this particular road and at this particular time of year.  I told her I was headed to the Nordkapp and she raised her eyebrows. She charged me the equivalent of £20 and led me to my chalet. The temperature had now started to plummet and I was missing the warmth of the car. She took me inside and put an electric fire on. She offered to light a log fire in the centre of the room, but I didn't want her to go to the trouble this late in the afternoon. I told her I would be ok. She pointed to another hut about 90 feet away. It was lit up and she told me that was the shower and toilet. I asked if there was a toilet in my hut but she told me 'No'. "You mean if I need to get up in the middle of the night, I have to go all the way over there?" I asked. She smiled wickedly and told me "Yes!" There was no hot meal available, in fact there was no cold meal available either, so I stocked up with chocolate. In the hut there were 6 bunk beds, I chose the bottom one nearest the fire.  Getting water to fill the kettle was no problem but the lady had only given me enough coffee, milk and sugar for three cups. I wondered how I would survive until morning. Rationing was the answer and I spent the evening timing the intervals between each cup.  I was glad I'd slept a night in the car because it made me appreciate my present surroundings. I put on my Irving flying jacket, a scarf, my work boots, a baseball cap and gloves, then I pulled my chair up as close to the fire as I dare and listened to the wind get up outside. I could see the inhabitants of the caravans eating hot meals. Around 9:30pm I decided to make my trek to the toilet block so as not to have to make the journey in the middle of the night. Much to my surprise, the water that came out of the taps was piping hot and I felt better having washed. The snow crunched underfoot as I made my way back to my hut. The wind whisked the top layer away as I disturbed it. I unrolled my two sleeping bags and got into them. It wasn't a very comfortable night but it could have been one hell of a lot worse as I discovered the next day, the next town was 150 miles further north. If I'd pressed on the previous evening instead of seeking shelter, I hate to think what might have happened.

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Parked up outside my hut in Lapland.

8:30 am Day 7.  Temperature was down to Minus 9* today. I was the first one up & about, everything else was quiet. After my trek to the Toilet block for a shave 'n shower, I packed my kit and started the car up. She was a bit more sluggish than usual but still started on the first attempt. I was beginning to develop a strong bond with it and started talking to her as soon as I got into it each morning. In fact I was starting to call 'it', 'her'. I knew that if all went well, I should be able to reach Norway and the north coast today. All along, in the back of my mind, I thought that once I'd got to 'Alta' I would be ok. It was by the coast, I was within 100 miles of the Nordkapp and the ferry south to Bergen. I also knew that the temperature would be higher than that of central Scandinavia and somehow thought that once there, all my troubles would be over. Wrong! I set off into the winter snow and after a few miles just had to pull over and get a photograph of the road ahead. It was at this point that I seriously considered turning around and going back along the road I'd come up on. I considered my options carefully, whether to turn around, knowing that the snow was now closing in and possibly cutting off my exit, or continuing North to the coast and civilisation. I decided to continue North. I managed to get to within about 10 miles of Alta before my first mishap. One of the best things LR have done is concentrated on a multi selectable gear box. It's an absolute joy to drive. The main Auto box is silky smooth and precise. By moving the gear selector to the left, the gearbox stays in Auto mode but retains the gears longer and kicks down earlier. This is ideal for city driving where acceleration is important, or for driving in deep sand or snow. The 3rd option is the manual selection and it's that that makes this gearbox the best I've ever used, bar none. It's absolutely fantastic. To change up, you simply push the selector forward and to change down, you simply pull it back. The changes are as smooth as silk. I was going downhill at about 45 mph, I'd selected 3rd in the manual gear change option and at the bottom of the hill I started to gently turn into a left -hand bend. Nothing happened. Everything went silent and I carried on going in a straight line. It's true what they say about your life flashing in front of you. My heart skipped 3 or 4 beats, I broke out in a cold sweat and said "Oh my F**k!"  Everything seemed in slow motion as my adrenalin kicked in and sharpened my senses. I knew better than to brake, so instinctively took my foot off the peddles and hoped for the best. Still I continued going straight. I remember wondering how do I get the car back home?  Suddenly, I remembered something my Dad had told me many years ago, "If all else fails, hit the throttle!" a strategy I've used successfully many times over the years. I stabbed at the accelerator peddle with my right foot and the front wheels instantly found grip in fresh snow. The front of the car started changing direction which I anticipated would make the rear end start to slide to the right, I lifted off, corrected the skid by steering into it, stabbed the accelerator again and with only inches to spare, the car twitched into a straight line. That all happened in 8 or 9 seconds. It took a hell of a lot longer for my heart to catch up. I looked up, thanked whoever had been watching over me, felt grateful to GMO cars back in Penzance for persuading me to buy this particular car and to Landover for building the best 4x4 I've ever driven (and I've driven quite a few).  It was to happen twice more during my journey south, but luckily I managed to get out of trouble each time. The second occasion was on a long sweeping left hand bend going downhill with white van-man 10 feet behind me. I could see his face in my rear view mirror and you should have seen his expression change when he saw me go into a four wheel drift in front of him. He never tailgated me again after that. I still think of that face even to this day. 

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In Alta the snow was falling heavily. The orange street lights gave it a Christmas like appearance. I heard the click, clacking of the studded tyres and noticed that a few vans were fitted with snow chains. After my previous fright, I now realised that the situation was serious. It would serve no purpose to book into a hotel and wait for it to stop because unlike the UK where snowfall would last maybe a couple of days, then disappear, this was Norway at the end of October and the start of their winter. There would be no respite now and my over-riding objective turned from the Nordkapp to getting as far south as I could in the shortest possible time. I called into a bank in order to change some money. Sweden has the Krona, so does Norway, but the two kronas are different in both appearance and value. Neither Country will accept the other's currency. Finland accepts all currencies. I was carrying Sterling, Swedish krona, Euros and now Norwegian krona. I called into a cafe and settled down with a cup of coffee. I looked out of the window at the traffic. The snow seemed heavier, large flakes falling in a straight line before getting caught in the slipstream of the cars, then flurrying in all directions. My stomach was turning over now and I must admit that I felt slightly nauseous after my earlier experience. All I could think about was the road south. It was around 11:30 am so I still had 5 hours of driving available to me. I finished up and went back to the car. I spent a few minutes studying the map and still considered making for one of the ports along the coast in order to catch a ferry south. I could see by the map that in order to get to any of the ports, I would have to cross a mountain range. That was out as far as I was concerned. At least there would be trucks on the main roads so if anything were to happen, at least I would be found. The biggest problem with driving in Northern Norway, as far as distances are concerned, is that the roads don't just zig zag to the left and right. They zig zag North and South also, which means you might drive 30 miles South, then have to drive 15 miles North again to detour around a mountain. This means that in order to travel south for 100 miles, you probably drive 120/130 miles. I spent my next night in a hotel approximately 100 miles north of 'Narvik', which became famous during WW2 after a daring raid by combined Norwegian and British commandos against the occupying German forces.  Just south of Narvik my journey was broken when I ran out of road and had to wait a couple of hours for a ferry.  By this time the snow had all but disappeared, I hoped for good but it was not to be. The sun came out and although it was bitterly cold, it was pleasant waiting for the ferry. It was one of the rare occasions when I could safely stop and get some pictures.  

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After rejoining the E6 I felt pretty good for the first time in days, although I was still anxious, the fear had subsided. As the road headed inland again, away from the coast, the snow began to get more plentiful again. I could see the distant mountains and knew that sooner or later I would have to cross them. I was amazed at the number and length of the tunnels in Northern Norway, the longest being 15 miles if my memory serves me correctly. Around 3pm the sky darkened and it snowed heavily again. My wipers struggling to clear it at one point. I checked into a hotel, though  I know not where. On day 9 after covering approximately 70 miles, the snow once again began to get less and less. This lulled me into a false sense of security as I'd covered around 250/300 miles and began to think that the worst was over. The roads were now dry and I was able to start making up some time. I put the radio on for the first time in days and allowed myself to admire the scenery as I whisked by it. About 1:30pm the road started a long, long ascent. The auto gearbox changed down from 6th to 5th, then down into 4th. We climbed and climbed and the sky got darker and darker. My stomach turned over again. The wind was now howling outside and the car was being buffeted from side to side. The snow came down almost horizontally across the road. I saw the outside temperature gauge go back down to Minus 10*. The snow was so thick that I decided if it got any worse, I would have to  pull in as I couldn't see the road in front of me. During a brief lull I saw a building to my left and the sign telling me that I had just crossed the Arctic Circle. The building was closed up, it would have made a nice break to stop there for something to eat. I battled on, the road had levelled off now and the snow started to fall less. The wind dropped considerably but not completely. Luckily, the visibility improved too and I saw something move to my right. It was a deer and he (or she) was about to walk in front of me. I braked gently and heard the anti-lock brakes growl as they tried to stop me on the ice. As I came to a halt, the deer looked at me, then crossed. Almost instantaneously a whole herd followed it, some stopping to lick the ice on the road. 

Deers.jpg (60986 bytes)  Holiday2010 (49).JPG (219357 bytes) It was one of those nice moments that I shall treasure. 

The journey south got better after that. It took another three days of hard driving to get back to the channel tunnel and the UK. I checked into the Travelodge in Dover around 9:30pm. I had something to eat in the bar and made a couple of phone calls while enjoying a pint of Boddingtons. I felt really good inside, like I'd achieved something. I'd experienced just about every emotion possible over the past few days. I realised how dangerous it could have been if things had gone wrong, after all I drove for 3 whole days at one stage and never saw more than a couple of dozen vehicles. I'd driven through tunnels 15 miles long under mountains, I'd taken ferries when I ran out of road, I drove through total wilderness in Finland and Lapland, I'd crossed some of the highest mountains in Europe, I'd crossed the Arctic Circle and came to within 100 miles of the most Northerly point in Europe. When I later checked my position on the map, I had been on the same latitude as 'Prudhoe Bay' in Alaska, where they filmed 'Ice Road truckers'.  I'd clocked up a total of 5,000 miles since leaving home and the Land Rover had not missed a single beat. She'd started first time every time, she'd got me out of the s**t on more than one occasion and she'd averaged 30 mpg. I now love my car deeply. 

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It would have been easy for me to go to Spain with a convoy and it would have probably been a nice 'holiday', but I'd just had an 'adventure'. I sat in the bar for a couple of hours watching everyone else and I found myself wondering where they had just come back from or where they may be headed. I felt pretty smug.    Two weeks later the weather I'd experienced in Finland would hit Scotland and Northern England, eventually bringing the Country to a near standstill.

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