Sunday, 9 July 2017

Travel Tales: Arctic Adventures

A four thousand mile journey North of the Arctic Circle on a motorcycle, exposed to the elements with only a simple tent for shelter, may not be everyone’s idea of an enjoyable holiday.

As someone who had never ridden more than seventy miles in one trip before, the North Cape journey required considerable planning. In the event, the experience of travelling extensively in Arctic Scandinavia proved enjoyable and very worthwhile with a diversity of interest ranging through natural history, spectacular wilderness scenery, ornithology, naval history and local Lapland culture.

The first part of the tour along the overcrowded motorways from Gloucestershire to the Harwich ferry terminal was safely completed in some four to five hours. The bike then found itself secured to the car ferry bulkhead with a grossly complex arrangement of rope work that would surely have defeated Houdini. As if to emphasize this overkill the crossing to 0510 was calm with no detectable ship movement.

The approach to Oslo, along the narrow waterway, gave everyone their first taste of fjord scenery. Oslo fjord with its conifer studded slopes and wooden houses is less dramatic than the set-piece tourist areas, but no less attractive for that. Oslo’s cosmopolitan sprawl lies draped along the waterfront. A large and gleaming white square rigged sailing ship floated amid a vibrant kaleidoscope of expensive yachts and working boats of all descriptions and sizes. The large, open air, floating bar complex complete with band is useful.

The most straightforward route to the Arctic Circle uses the E6 highway via Trondheim. The road snakes its way comfortably along the Gudbrandsdalen, a fertile agricultural valley of temperate climate, to the town of Dombas. lt’s shortly after here that the first mountain crossing is encountered. This proved to be reasonably straightforward with the road climbing quite gently for some five miles before levelling out amid snow-capped peaks. Firmly resisting the temptation of the Opdal bird-watching marshes, camp was eventually made on the outskirts of Trondheim, where the blue-eyed, blonde site receptionist managed to charge me a two day fee for an overnight stay.

With a good day's run of 340 miles safely under the belt, it was time to assess the road-work. The bike seemed to be enjoying itself bowling along at speeds of up to 50mph, but being only 250cc, and decidedly overloaded, hill climbing was bound to suffer. The traffic density was light, and the road surfaces good. One or two motorists displayed impatience when trying to overtake and I later discovered that one is expected to make room for passing cars by moving over. The big surprise was the large number of other bikers making the trip, mainly German; I was clearly not to be short of company.

The Svartisen glacier, on the Arctic Circle, lies within striking distance of the industrial township of Mo-i-Rani. A bumpy 15 mile ride through the outback started the day. At the end of the road is a lake, which can be walked around or crossed on a motor boat shuttle service. Finally, an hour's hike up a mountain path and you arrive at the foot of the glacier. Large chunks of ice break free and float around as mini icebergs in the melt pond of crystal clear water. Not the most stable of structures, it is prudent to avoid walking through ice arches or exploring its caverns. It is worth an hour's extra labour to climb the mountain to view the ice field. I even spotted a distant Golden Eagle.

At an appropriately bleak point on a rainswept area of high altitude moorland the road crosses the Arctic Circle line. A couple of photos of the Circle stone and a look around the souvenir stalls was a break in the days ride. Passing railway trains signal their entry into the Arctic circle with long whistles.

A fair amount of concentration was needed to wrestle the bike as it bounced and lurched along the frost damaged roads. "Ach Englander, you have lots of kit," commented one cheerful German biker on the Narvik ferry. His tent, it transpired, consisted of a sheet of dampcourse polythene tied to his parked bike - used as a lean-to with some string.

The best section of roadwork on the entire trip was between Narvik and Alta. Giant mountain passes tested the twin cylinder engine. Long, cold and damp tunnels misted up my visor. The breathtaking scenery, where the road sweeps along the shoreline, resulted in many stops to take photographs. With time to spare, after erecting the tent on the approaches to Alta, a walk to the top of the nearby ridge occupied the evening. Far below lay little Ka fjord, an offshoot of the large Allen fjord. The air was crystal clear under a blue sky, a picture postcard scene of absolute peaceulness.

A violent thunderstorm disrupted the next days itinerary, crashing down the valley, flooding the campsite. The trek to Scandinavia's answer to the Grand Canyon was dropped in favour of a less demanding visit to a 4000 year old rock carving site.

The last leg of the mainland journey goes North East across the empty Finnmark plateau. A long climb away from Alta started the day. Having reached the high ground, the road runs straight across a desolate, mist covered moor. Herds of reindeer interrupted their grazing to stare blandly at the intrusion of a motorcycle with its crackling exhaust, straining into an increasingly fierce headwind.

A pair of hooded crows fed on a dead lemming killed by a car, as I tried to bring the bike to a halt, but the CB ran off the road into a ditch. Happily, no damage was done but it took ten minutes, or so, to regain the roadway, by which time the crows had finished their meal. Eventually the road began to lose height, rapidly bringing a welcome return to civililsation in the form of the mighty Porsanger Fjord, gateway to the Arctic Ocean, an area of outstanding beauty where steep cliffs fall into a sparkling ocean and inland are miles of rolling tundra where reindeer rule.

Travelling north along the .1 shoreline, the wind reached gale force with rain showers racing ashore in rapid succession. Whenever the sun appeared, spectacular rainbows arched across the cliffs and down into the waves. A small ferry runs a regular and speedy service between the mainland and Mageroy island. The campsite on the outskirts of Honningsvag was decidedly windswept but shelter was gained by pitching the tent in the lee of a wall.

From there it was a short ride across the barren island to North Cape to view the midnight sun. The famous globe monument is situated atop the enormous cliffs and forms a perfect vantage point overlooking the Arctic Ocean. All that remained was to post the obligatory cards before starting to think about an interesting route home.

There is a twice weekly ferry service from Harwich to Oslo, and from Newcastle to Bergen. In Norway campsites are numerous and well appointed. Petrol and food are expensive; most tourists take some food with them to reduce costs. The return journey, south through Finland and Sweden gives easier motoring through gentler terrain.

The machine used was a 1981 Honda 250N Superdream, fitted with a large top box and throw-over panniers. The trip lasted three weeks with a maximum mileage of 350 miles.

With breakdown avoidance in mind engine revs were kept below 7000 rpm and low gears were used on the many mountain passes. Road speeds seldom exceeded 50mph. Petrol averaged 74mpg. The work done to the bike en route was limited to a daily chain adjustment, one oil change, and after cold starting became difficult, a new set of plugs were fitted. Not the best of mechanics, my contingency plan for major problems was to dump the bike and come home on the train, writing off its £300 value. Luckily, this wasn’t necessary.

Ken Smallwood

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