One of my dear friends recently wrote to me with these words “It’s no mistake that you have to work to get to better places. I can imagine it’s a struggle to leave places when only the unexpected awaits you.” Alex totally nailed it and my journey south from the Lofoten islands to Helsinki stands testament. The week was filled with some blessed moments. However, it started with a lengthy drive and a moment of wallowing, self-pity.
A fine combination of an emotional comedown from my fire lit beach evening and not really knowing where I was headed meant my drive off the Lofoten islands back to mainland Norway left me tired and lost in myself. Sometimes, too much time to you leaves too much time to think and this was one of those days. Two hitchhikers from Spain and Australia vaguely cheered me for brief moments. I drove long and hard with my first wrong moment of poor navigation. Fortunately it was a minor one and quickly resolved by consulting a map in the layby of a war memorial to the battle of Narvik in 1940. I was leaving Norway after a fabulous time and I wanted to get to Helsinki by the end of the week. Beyond that I had no plans and that disconcerted me.
As I crossed the border to Sweden, it was getting late and every point I investigated to settle in just didn’t seem right. With no enticing roadside places, I was happy to pay for a campsite to ensure a good rest. The only one I could find was a strangely abandoned, out of season ski resort – a quick drive round revealed even more discomfort within me. I drove on.
I passed another strange looking place calling itself a Turiststation. It didn’t look appealing but I challenged myself to investigate properly. This twist of curiousness smiled on me.
On exploring the large soviet style concrete building it turned out to be a hotel-sized hostel with a hiking shop, restaurant and education centre at the entrance to the Abisko national park. Some free Wi-Fi had me sit down and a binder caught my interest. In it, there were many nature trails across the small 77km2 reserve. It was enough to tempt me into some hiking the next day so I planned to stay the night. There was no room at the inn but there was a car park labelled no camping ;) A quick moment of covert cooking and unpacking Pico left me catching up on some internet-requiring admin in the foyer again. Then there came some eager noises. A girl burst into the room babbling excited Swedish. With a confused look, my lips began to form the usual explanation of my English nature. She only needed to say one more word – Aurora.
The Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Originally when planning the trip they had been the reason for the journey north. For many other boring reasons, I’d left the UK in August and had already accepted the grim realisation that my timing was off. I’d never see such a spectacle one month after Scandinavia’s period of 24-hour sunlight. And yet here I was, mouth a gape, staring in disbelief at the word I’d just heard.
We ran outside and gazed to the skies. It just looked like some weirdly low clouds with the smallest hint of green dashing them. Still – I was filled with lip curling smiles. The aurora died off and I returned to my admin inside. I’d seen them – awesome.
I kept up with the ladmin* - this would usually be a chore and it was a little. However, having been in the wilderness for a fair while and without a plan, it was needed. It meant I was up well into the night. Normally this would not be blog worthy! The reason it is – when I went outside to turn in, the sky was lit up with epic streams of green. My soul melted with incredulity and the camera was swiftly pulled out. My efforts are below. They were incredible to view.
The lights at their best
A word of warning for future Aurora chasers – a photo will often look even more spectacular than the actual thing. A long exposure means you can capture all the colours (potentially red, green and purple) and movement of the light that your eyes will not. What a photo can’t replace is the feeling of awe.
So I got lucky. Immensely lucky. In a place where I hadn’t planned to be, on a date when the Northern Lights don’t shine and with a clear sky, I saw the un-seeable.
Pico and I enjoying the lights
The next day followed with a hike to a reproduction Sami settlement, Northern Europe’s only indigenous peoples. Feeling adventurous I continued through the national park to the summit of the 1164m high, Njulla peak. It was nice to gain a bit of altitude with a view over the whole area – even if things got a little wet and windy. I could see where I’d come from over the border pass behind me and could gaze at the twisting worm of the E10 cutting its way through the green basin of the national park. The vista gave me a pleasant feeling as I could see exactly where I was headed next.
On the top of Njulla
Upon coming down from the top and entering the Aurora Sky Station at the top of Sweden’s longest and oldest chair lift, I met Gustav. He was a chair-lift engineer and a genuinely sweet guy. It’d been a quiet day in the sky station with only 14 people making it there so we had a great one-on-one conversation until close. Through talking to him I discovered that Njulla means weather-splitter in Sami and that the Abisko national park has its own microclimate where there is far less precipitation than anywhere else around. Thus it is perfect for viewing the Northern Lights. How lucky I had been to stop.
I rode the chair lift down and had an equally enjoyable conversation with Fredrik at the bottom. They even gave me a blanket for the journey! So if you ever want to see the lights I can definitively recommend Abisko in Sweden – it’s fairly remote but it does also have the finest off-piste skiing in Sweden by Gustav and Fredrik’s accounts.
Gustav in the Sky Station
A quick note to also thank Andreas and Annie, a couple of Stockholm police officers – they delighted me with great conversation on Couchsurfing, travelling and tales of their completion of the Kungsleden (a 270 mile hiking trail that runs through Sweden) – it was lovely to spend the evening by the fire with you!
The journey to Finland was tiresome, boring and repetitive. In fact, I could have been driving on a treadmill for lots of it. The only vague highlight was seeing a coalmine in the distance – that kind of drive. The mines in Lapland are definitely contentious – there’s much disagreement between the indigenous populations that have traversed the landscapes for centuries and those wishing to make quantities of money harvesting the natural resources.
Arriving in Finland bought satisfaction and 3 reindeer on the road in 2 separate occasions. This served to awaken my taste buds and a promise to myself to sample reindeer in Helsinki was established – more on that next post.
I camped on the banks of Finland’s longest river the Kemijoki in the Lapland city of Rovaniemi – the home of Santa. They have a fairly decent museum called the Arkitum – it celebrates all things Arctic and Finnish. In it is a particularly in-depth exhibition on climate change that was enjoyable, enlightening and depressingly factual on humanity’s destruction of their home. A quick visit to the Santa village meant I got my photo on the Arctic Circle having missed the opportunity on a ferry when I went north.
Pico on the banks of the river
At the Arctic Circle - 66 degrees
Traffic moves slowly in Finland. In fact at points it appears the people in the North are so reserved and polite that they wouldn’t dare overtake. As speeds slow, they could regressively come to a halt. Still, the slower the drive, the more you appreciate. This is how it was when I cruised down to Kuopio on a mega drive. The journey was well soundtracked by Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Infinite Monkey Cage podcast – a panel based approach using scientific reasoning to light-heartedly discuss the big questions of today. I keep getting totally absorbed by them – if I stop driving and it’s not finished, I stay in the car – I am totally sold on podcasts!
Another friend recently got in contact to see whether I’d had any embarrassing moments so far. She was after one per blog post – there have been a few and I’ll remember to include them going forwards if such moments occur – they inevitably will :)
To appease Lucy’s enjoyment of my indiscretions immediately and as precursor to a Finnish cinema moment next post, here’s one from the previous week. Within the first 4 weeks of this journey I’d split both the crotches of my pairs of trousers – nothing new for me and my sizeable thighs. My hiking trousers were done after the Trolltunga hike and went straight in the bin – the gaping hole created by multiple lunges up rocks was just too big to fix (about a foot circumference!). My jeans swiftly followed but at a much more gradual rate – I was comfortable wearing them to begin with. Things gradually opened up down there and my Viking dinner evening out was upcoming. By this point, the hole was really quite large – I could get my head through it. However, for a formal dinner I felt I needed trousers instead of shorts. So with a roll of gaffa tape decorated with the characters from Frozen I taped up the hole 10 minutes before dinner. What followed was a meal of unusual rigidity downstairs but at least my dignity was maintained. I think ;)
So as I journeyed South that was my enlightening experience (sorry!). Seeing the Northern Lights was an experience I never thought I would get despite it being one of the original reasons for the trip. Something is still looking out for me it appears. Next stop was Helsinki and a weekend in the city after some weeks in the wilderness – I was looking forward to it and a bed.
Tuesday 30th August – Abisko National Park
Wednesday 31st August – Abisko National Park
Thursday 1st September – Rovaniemi Camping, Rovaniemi
Friday 2nd September – Lakeside car park, Kuopio
* life administration