PETER AND ANN FROST visit Europe’s most Northerly spot
It is a peculiar feeling being woken by bright sunshine streaming through every tiny gap in your motorhome blinds and looking at your watch to find it is just two in the morning. But it is a regular occurrence when you are above the Arctic Circle in mid summer.
The curious phenomena of the midnight sun was the main reason for making the long journey north but we found there was an amazing amount to see and do north of the Arctic Circle in Norway.
It is a very long drive, well over 1500 miles, from Bergen to Nordkapp. It’s also a sobering thought that the road to the north, the E6, was only completed little more than 60 years ago by the Nazis using Soviet prisoners of war as slave labour. No surprise then that the Norwegians still call it the Blood Road.
Russia is in fact very close. When the E6 runs out at the Russian border near Kirkenes you see the tantalizing road sign that tells you Murmansk is less than a hundred miles further on.
Oh well, there is always another journey to plan and another time to do it for those of us lucky enough to have a motorhome. Let’s get back to this year’s epic trip.
The Nordkapp (North Cape) is generally reckoned to be the most Northerly point in mainland Europe and is almost 750 miles above the Arctic Circle itself. Another 750 miles and you’d be at the North Pole – well nearly.
At Nordkapp from Early May to late July the sun never sets below the horizon. In fact when we were there, as all good pagans should be on the night of the summer solstice, the sun was still remarkable high in the sky even at midnight.
Perhaps it is to be expected but this far north you can’t guarantee continuous sunshine. Days can be wet and windy but we were surprised how often after a dull day at about ten of eleven in the evening the clouds would clear and by midnight the sun would be blazing down.
In fact that is exactly what happened at the Nordkapp on that night in June. We arrived in the late afternoon in thick sea fog. Driving at anything over walking speed was virtually impossible and it was hard to see your hand in front of your face.
Disappointment didn’t begin to describe our feelings and we sat down to rearrange our schedule to allow us to stay for another night or two. We needn’t have worried.
At about half past ten the sun struggled through the cloud. By Midnight it had burnt off the mist and we sat ‘til two in the morning in shorts and tee-shirt drinking wine with other British motorcaravaners as if it was a summer afternoon.
I don’t think any of us would have been prouder if we had actually reached the Pole itself.
And talking of the North Pole, when I checked my compass that’s exactly where the sun was shining from, right over the top of the world, amazing!
When we got up quite late the next morning the mist was back as thick as it had been the day before. It was almost as if the midnight sun had been a dream.
Now I said earlier that the Nordkapp is generally reckoned to be the most Northerly point in mainland Europe. Because of that thousands of tourists come here ever year.
Strange really because the barren headland, that looks for all the world like a thousand foot high chocolate blancmange, is actually on an island and not on the mainland at all.
But it is to the giant North Cape Centre that the thousands of motorhomes arrive every year. First we pay the toll to drive though the new undersea tunnel that brings us to the island of Mageroya. Nearly fifty quid each way for two of us and our 6.6 metre motothome.
Then we pay the Nordkapp Centre entrance fee – 190 Nkr (£18) per person – but this does includes two nights stay on the no facilities car park along with several hundred other motorhomes.
We visit the huge underground hall literally blasted out of the cliff face with huge glass walls looking out over the Barents Sea. We watch the video and visit the ‘most northerly’ shop, café, post office, bar, toilet or what-have-you. We take our pictures and send our postcards.
Some of us marvel at a bizarre Thai museum. It seems the King of Siam came to the Cape in 1907. He carved his initials on a rock – you and I would be arrested – but if you’re the King of Siam they build a museum and Thai tourists flock to the place.
…And we all moan about what a rip-off the Nordkapp is. But we wouldn’t have missed it for the world and nor will few other motorcaravanners once they have made it this far North.
Let me tell you a secret. The North Cape isn’t even the most northerly point on Mageroya Island. That honour goes to a beautiful deserted headland called Knivskjelodden just along the coast.
Find the small car park just less than two miles from the main entrance to the Nordkapp centre. It is only marked by a small hand-painted wooden ‘Knivskjelodden’ fingerpost. From the post a six mile walk heads off towards what is really the most northerly point of Europe.
So the choice is yours – two of Europe’s most northerly points. Visit them both – in different ways they are places you will never forget.
Wherever we went around the northernmost reaches of Arctic Norway we saw herds of reindeer, and where there are reindeer you will find the nomadic reindeer herders the Sami people.
We first met the Sami beside the road. A cluster of traditional tents would indicate a small and temporary trading post where you could buy a reindeer skin, a set of antlers or just sample a plate of reindeer stew.
We found lots of reindeer on Mageroya Island. Indeed they invaded our campsite at the Nordkapp itself. They graze the rich growth of lichens and moss near the coast in summer moving inland in winter months.
How do they get on and off the island? Not through that expensive tunnel surely? No, they swim! Huge herds of reindeer on their annual migration have no trouble swimming fierce rushing river torrents. So a mile or so of icy open sea doesn’t bother them at all.
We decided we wanted to know a little more about these ‘people of the reindeer’ and their way of life so we headed for the capital of the Sami nation at Karasjok.
There are about 70,000 Sami today and they are probably one of the oldest races in Europe. Migrating reindeer are no respecters of political or national borders so you will find the Sami nation stretched right across the north of Norway, Finland, Sweden and even the Kola Peninsular of North West Russia.
They have there own language and, yes, it does have dozens of different words for snow and ice. Samis were once known as Lapps and the huge area of the Arctic they occupy was called Lapland. Indeed both of those terms are still used in some places today.
In the 1980’s. The government of Norway decided to dam the Alta-Kautokeino River as part of a massive hydro-electric project. This was a sacred river for the Sami and worse the dam would flood a Sami community in a special sacred and historic location.
Protests turned to demonstrations and then to hunger strikes by the Sami. But it seemed to no avail – the dam went ahead. Worse was to come.
In 1986 the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl dealt the Sami what could have been the knockout blow. Radiation made their reindeer meat un–eatable and un-saleable and the game, fish, wild berries and fungi that make up so much of the rest of the Sami diet were polluted too.
Thousands of Sami people were forced to move to the cities giving up their traditional nomadic lifestyle.
These two events however moved public opinion in Norway. In 1988 the Norwegian Constitution was changed recognising the Sami’s unique position in Nordic life. In 1989 the Sami got a Parliament of their own as well as a large degree of self rule.
In Karasjok today you can visit that spectacular Parliament building (below). And just up the road visit Sapmi an imaginative open air museum and village where you can learn a lot more about the life, lore and history of these really amazing and colourful people.
After Karasjok we wanted a bit more of the fascinating Sami culture so we drove on to Kautokeino the largest Sami community in Norway. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, this is home to the biggest reindeer market in the world.
It must be an amazing event. But we weren’t to see it. The truth is the Sami are still genuine nomads. They had packed up their tents and hit the road – so did we.
We drove along the fabulous and beautiful valley of the mighty Alta-Kautokeino River. Blue throats sang from the roadside bushes. The wide waters tumbled over rapids and falls until at last it plunged stormily beside the road down the spectacular gorge into the town of Alta and its fjord.
Alta’s gorge – the largest and most spectacular in northern Europe – has a collection of 6000 year old rock carvings. A walk down the lower reaches of the canyon takes you past the various carvings that show what life was like here all that time ago.
I was more interested in the history and heroism of just sixty or so years ago. The Tirpitz museum just outside Alta tells the story of how the two German battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst hid in the fjords here protected by high mountains, torpedo nets and U-boats.
They ventured out to harass and often sink shipping in the Allied convoys on the way from Britain’s North Sea ports to Murmansk in Arctic Russia.
It’s a tale that involves the famous Lief Larsen, hero of the Norwegian resistance based in Shetland. Using a disguised fishing boat he tows a new secret weapon, the Chariot, across to Norway right under the Nazi’s noses.
The Chariot pictured being launched above) was literally a torpedo with a driving seat on top. The whole story is the stuff of boy’s adventure books – but it’s all real and in the museum at Alta they tell the tale with relish.
We had already learnt how important this part of world was to Britain’s wartime fortunes at Narvik down the coast where the winter war had been fought so hard and so bravely.
After all that heroism and privation I have a confession to make. At Alta we almost deserted our Adria and booked into the luxury of a hotel. “Disgusting” I hear you Practical Motorhome readers mutter. It was a great temptation however for Alta is the location for the famous Ice Hotel.
Everything here is made from ice. The building, the rooms, even the cocktail glasses. Fortunately for my career as a Practical Motorhome correspondent temptation had been snatched away. The hotel had completely melted a month or so ago and wouldn’t be rebuilt again until next winter’s snows.
We love islands – particularly remote and windswept outcrops of civilisation – so Norway’s famous Lofoten Islands were high on our list for a visit.
They proved as beautiful as we had expected and just as wild and windy as we had hoped. Not surprising really when you think we were as far north as Greenland or Alaska.
This tiny archipelago with its wall of jagged snow capped peaks, dramatic rocky fishing harbours, tumbling mountain streams and peaceful sheltered fjords – even clean beaches of silver sand – has a great deal to offer the outdoor enthusiast in a motorhome.
The walking is fantastic. So is the fishing and climbing. They have some exciting outdoor activities we’d never heard of before. How do you fancy white water rafting – on the ocean – exploiting the terrifying maelstroms that have made the coast here so dangerous for generations of fishermen?
Other, more normal, boating is available too. It’s easy to rent a rowing or small motorboat on the quieter inland fjords or take an organised trip in a fast inflatable for some of the best wildlife watching in the world.
Boats will take you to great bird watching cliffs. The Lofotens are home to large populations of the white tailed sea eagle and many boat trips are dedicated to viewing these magnificent birds.
Or why not take a whale watching trip. Smaller whales, say up to 8 metres (30 feet), are really plentiful and the huge sperm whale, which can be twice that, is not uncommon in these waters.
If you don’t see whales in their natural environment you will certainly see whale meat in the shops. When Norway decided to ignore world opinion and resume commercial whaling it was the Lofoten Islanders who lead the contentious campaign. Today Norway’s biggest whale meat processing factory is in the Islands.
We found Hval-Biff, as it is called, almost the most popular meat in shops and supermarkets hereabouts. It also featured in a big way in traditional restaurants all over the islands.
We decided we prefer our sea mammals swimming free rather than on our supper plate. We did however enjoy another harvest of the sea and one that dominates the look, and the smell, of these islands. Everywhere you go you will find salt cod and particularly cod heads hanging on racks to dry in the wind.
Air dried salt cod – stokfish – can last for twenty years and it has, weight for weight, five times the nutritional value of the fresh fish. No wonder it has sold well in places like Spain and Portugal for more than three centuries.
In fact air dried salt cod was the Viking’s secret weapon. With a stock of the fish in their longboats they would not starve however long the voyage. They roamed the whole of the known world and even reached America centuries before Columbus.
All over the islands you find racks of fish drying in the wind. Once the cod heads used to be thrown away except for a few that were eaten locally as a delicacy.
Today thousands of heads are air dried and then ground into a powder that is sold to Nigeria where it is prized by local cooks as a flavouring and seasoning.
We tried and enjoyed a related local speciality, a dish of fried cod tongues but we learned to give the drying racks a wide berth – they smelt disgusting.
I’ve already mentioned the Vikings and their use of stokfish to keep them fed on long voyages. At Borg, on the islands, they have excavated and reconstructed the largest Viking chieftain’s palace ever found anywhere.
The huge house is 83 metres long and you can discover, and have a go at, all kinds of Viking activities here. They have even built an accurate replica of a Viking ship that you can help row out on the fjord.
All Norway is beautiful but this little archipelago has a unique and haunting beauty and a totally different character that comes from an intimate relationship with the seas that batter its shores. It is still one of the world’s truly wild places.
We had travelled to Norway before but always to the remarkably beautiful fjord country within easy reach of Bergen. No less an authority than National Geographic Magazine declared it the ‘Most beautiful holiday destination in the World’. They are probably right. indeed we spent a week in the fjords on our way back to Britain.
One ambition we achieved was to drive the truly spectacular route 55 from Lom to Gaupne. This is the highest mountain pass in northern Europe and it climbs to 1434 metres (nearly four and a half thousand feet).
It demonstrated why Norway is such a fascinating country. High in these relatively southern mountains we saw more snow and ice that we had anywhere in the Arctic north.
After all that driving we wanted a little rest and relaxation. We spent a few days at a favourite site at Flam in the heart of fjord country.
We let the train take the strain on what must be one the most spectacular railways in the world. The Flamsbana climbs 866 metres (nearly 2,800 feet) in just over twelve and a half miles and it does it on ordinary tracks with no racks or anything clever like that.
It does however have five different braking systems any one of which can bring a fully laden train to a halt on the steepest section of the line – very reassuring.
We also enjoyed a boat trip to view the Naeroyfjord the narrowest and most spectacular of the arms of the Aurlandsfjord. We loved the story of life on the steep farms beside the water. So steep and high were the meadows that toddlers were kept on a leash to stop them tumbling into the waters below.
As always at Flam we had a great holiday, but it was just that, a holiday. It didn’t begin to compare with our great Arctic trek – that was a real adventure.
This article appeared in Practical Motorhome Magazine 2011