Monday, 29 July 2013

The Lofoten Islands and the E17 Coastal Route

Arrival at Fiskebol on the Lofoten Island of Austvagoyby ferry from Melbu on Langoya (one of the Vesteralen Islands) was on a grey afternoon with low cloud obscuring the tops but things improved the following day as I walked a stiff section of coastline from Eggum before heading round to Nusfjord - a wonderfully situated traditional fishing village with brightly painted huts, a former cod liver oil factory and another good walk round the craggy coastline.
From near Flakstad a walk over a steep ridge followed by the descent to Kvalvika beach was undertaken in perfect conditions and the bay an absolute gem - a few people had pitched tents enjoying the 'allesmannsratte' that permits wild camping almost anywhere in Norway and which people very much appreciate so undertake responsibly as regards litter and nuisance value.
The islands are linked by tunnels and bridges all dominated by the 160km long Lofotenveggen mountain chain which provide a remarkably craggy backdrop to the many hamlets and bays. Down at 'A' (at last an easy name to pronounce) I skirted the south shore of Lake Agvatnet before climbing steeply to the ridge that offered superb views back down to A and out to the wild west coast. 

With the weather conditions now perfect I enjoyed a couple more days exploring the many delights of this straggly chain including Henningsvaer another pretty village with many rorbuer (former fishermens' huts) available for rent and a diversion down to Digermulen where one of the large Hurtigruten ships was powering majestically through the Raftsunde. In the mornings a sea fog filled the fjords leaving the bridges to rise ghostlike beneath sun drenched mountains - all very picturesque.
However with the halfway point of this trip fast approaching I headed inland and round to Narvik with its huge iron ore processing terminal and then followed a dramatic section of the E6 to Fauske. The amazing road climbed steep passes, followed idyllic coastline and utilised many long tunnels and one ferry crossing to bring me to the start of the E17 coastal route (the Kystriksveien) which will take me the 800 or so kilometres down to Trondheim. It mixes and matches roads, bridges, tunnels and 7 ferry crossings and has linked a number of previously very isolated communities with the wider world. 
The good weather encouraged me to free camp every night - hence the long gap between blogs - and I was making use of the tinned and dried goods from home topped up by fresh fruit and veg from the odd larger village. Between Jetvik and Kilbogham whilst on the ferry we crossed the Arctic Circle (marked by a steel globe on the shore) which marked for me the end of 3 weeks within its 'confines'. The van had also clocked up 280,000 miles that day and the trip had reached its halfway point so the day was full of mini milestones - closer examination of the labels in a shop in Ornes had revealed a miscalculation of mine over the price of Guinness as it is in fact only 99p a can but I resisted the temptation to indulge as with 6 weeks on the wagon behind me it could only hurt.
After a night by the sea in Glomfjord the long dark Svartistunnel led out on to high plateau where the Svartisen glacier could be seen - its lower edge drops to only 170m ASL - the lowest glacial arm in mainland Europe and reminded me of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers in NZ's South Island which also drop almost to sea level.
The whole coastline had been superb and the innumerable off shore islands beckoned so at Nesna I decided to take the ferry over to Tomma where I found the perfect free camping on a beach on the west side of the island. Here I saw my first sunset in a month as now being outside the Arctic Circle things would slowly revert to normal, although in fact it only set for an hour and it never actually went dark. The main purpose of my visit was to climb the 922m Tomskjevelen  mountain reached by starting at sea level near Forsland. A steep pull up to lake was followed by another section across rocky outcrops and amongst blueberries and stunted birch trees to reach about 2000' at which point I realised I had mislaid my camera (sounds familiar). Backtracking to the van met no success so I set off again trying to follow my route but with no paths to stick to it all seemed rather pointless. Then amazingly 500' below where I had turned round I came across the shiny blue case - if anybody ever does lose a needle in a haystack I'm your man - and feeling somewhat reinvigorated tackled the remaining 1500' to the summit. From here the north east face of the mountain dropped a sheer 2000' to the the approach slopes and then the superb coastline with its turquoise bays, tiny huts and golden beaches.
Hundreds of islands glinted across the water in this area known as Helgeland which receives no coverage at all in my Rough Guide - a major omission - and will be well worth returning to.
A hundred miles away across in mainland Norway - probably nearer the main inland route the E6 and Mo I Rana where the even higher mountains of the Norwegian/Swedish border lay- I could see that there was a huge storm breaking so decided to head back down arriving at the van after a tiring but exhilarating 7 hours on the go. I had the beach to myself again and enjoyed a peaceful night before today picking up the E17 again with 2 ferries down to Sandnessjoen. The remnants of the storm passed by and after a week of wild camping I have booked in on a lovely coastal site to do some laundry, deal with emails and update this blog. If the connection is up to it there are phone calls to be made as well before I head south to Trondheim with a couple more islands and some good summits to look forward to. By connecting one of my jump leads to the aerial I can occasionally boost reception sufficiently to get Radio 4 which is a bonus but when I have a wifi connection I have been downloading dozens of podcasts to listen to enabling me to keep abreast of news and current affairs.

Anyway whilst my meanderings can be clocked here this time there is a bonus of two sets of photos - the Lofoten Islands here and the northern part of the E17 coastal highway here

Some time this week I will have to spend an hour spannering under the van as an oil change is due and I will have to find a chemist for some aspirin as I am about to run out - in fact all my pills will run out just as I return home so a GP appt. will need to be made before  I head to Brecon for this year's Brecon Beast event - if you can help out then please set aside the weekend of the 7/8th of September for some fun and games.

Longer term readers of the blog will recall my involvement with a new bothy project in Mid Wales - great progress has been made since the helicopter drop : these pictures give an idea of the achievements made - a superb effort on many fronts. Well done guys - I will soon be back to choose the curtain fabrics!















Friday, 19 July 2013

Island Life

Tromso's stunning new cathedral looks across to the small city itself which was reached by crossing a graceful bridge. The Polar Museet had some excellent displays on the history of life over the last few hundred years in these once remote places. The story of Roald Amundsen's polar explorations including by airship were well documented and the story of Fridtjof Nansen and a colleague who were marooned in 1895 on the pack ice and waited 9 months over winter to escape after a total of 15 months of isolation was somewhat humbling.
From Tromso (which took some leaving as the major roads are in tunnels with poorly signposted roundabouts underground where of course the sat nav was itself lost) I headed west to catch a ferry across to Skenja and a harbour side park up in Husoy for £10 including hook up. In the village which sits encircled by high mountains there was a travelling summer festival brought in on a ship that had moored up which was well attended.
I explored the rest of the island which has many isolated villages linked by passes and tunnels (but most easily for locals by boat)  including Torsken with its beautiful wooden church and parked beneath Kvaenen on the coast with a large shoal of fish being hunted offshore by a pod of dolphins. The Anderdalen National park lay to the east and with plenty of daylight left on a fine evening I decided to tackle the 3,300' top reached by a long ascent through birch wood and then large expanses of boulders and scree before a final steep scramble to the jagged ridge. From the top this fell away dramatically to the fjords below and the panoramic views were the best of the trip so far. I stayed an hour or so before descending to the comforts of the van for a good night's sleep.



After returning to the mainland at Finnsnes I followed the coast road round to Harstad on Hinnoya reached by another bridge and found a place to stop on the Elgsnes peninsular.
Today has seen an exploration of Andoya one of the Vesteralen Islands and I am currently at the top end of another - the island of Langoya  at Sto on a small site that offers peace and quiet in a very special setting. The Lofoten Islands will fill the next few days before a circuit back to Narvik - if you enjoy the photos at this link it is possible to get a slideshow by clicking the'v' to the right of  the 'add photos' box and selecting the slideshow option.
Equally my whereabouts at this link are updated daily whether or not I post on the blog.

Monday, 15 July 2013

High Pressure - No Pressure

After the wild spell of weather at the top things settled down - good news for the various cyclists and others battling their way to the top including two lads pushing a wheelbarrow with all their kit. 

Round at Hammerefest I took a pitch for the night on a quiet site at the edge of town and enjoyed a walk round the bustling harbour and the following day visited the museum of freedom and liberation that detailed the horrors of Nazi occupation and the rebuilding of the town following implementation of Hitler's scorched earth policy during withdrawal. Much of the Norwegian housing up here is post war and during the occupation many survived great hardship living in caves in the mountains and using traditional survival skills.
Down at Allta the UNESCO listed rock art was very impressive and carefully explained and with clear skies I enjoyed the coastal road dominated by impressive mountains before settling for the night on the shore of Langfjorden. 
Round at Storslett the helpful information centre had a leaflet listing a number of walks in the area so I headed up the valley and found a place to spend the night alongside a hydro power scheme's dam. Rain had returned overnight but the next morning dawned bright and clear for the three hour each way walk to the 3000'summit of Favrresvarri. A footpath of sorts followed the lake shore past two bivouac shelters to a simple hut which reminded me of the DOC huts in NZ with fire wood laid on and a stove waiting to be lit - our bothies in the UK tend to be existing buildings but these are purpose built.
A couple of stream crossings en route had been hairy due to the overnight downpour but fortunately the major river had a substantial footbridge although after that there was no path - marked or otherwise so I took off across the open country leaving the birch and willow behind and below as I climbed towards the snow patches below the summit. A ptarmigan took off to reveal a lovely nest of eggs and I was soon on the summit with panoramic views in to even wilder scenery and higher tops. Norway's access rights mean you can walk freely just about anywhere but at these latitudes the season is short and even in mid July conditions can get quite demanding - indeed on the higher ridges last night's rain had fallen as snow. A different route down took me past reindeer herds one of which crossed the fast flowing river without a second thought and I returned to the van after an exhilarating day for another night of solitude.
Today has seen me travel through some superb coastal and mountain scenery and take the first of what will be many ferries over the next few weeks as I follow a somewhat mercurial route along the coast to include the Vesteralen and Lofoten islands to reach Trondheim which will be about half way down Norway. With so much free camping available sites like this one here in Tromso will act as service stops enabling me to get my laundry done, spend some time online and fill up with water but otherwise generally compared to such gems as last night they hold little appeal. With the high pressure that has brought the UK such good weather now seeming to have arrived here daytime highs of 28 - 30C and lows of around 15C when the sun is lower (it still never actually sets) will be very welcome.

The usual selection of pics are here and big brother is here. 

A good friend retires (at last ) on Friday so I will take the opportunity to wish her well but suggest that here at £9.90 a can for Guinness I will be toasting the news with a decent brew of tea!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

24 Hours At The Top

Heading back towards Honningsvag for a couple of miles put me at the start of a 5 hour return walk to Knivskjellodden (that woke the spellchecker up) which juts a mile further north than the Nordkapp and is the true most northerly point of Europe. On a dry but blustery day the walk took me out across a plateau with scrub grazed by reindeer herds, birds play acting to lead me away from their nests and a sense of remoteness  of some magnitude. In fact a couple of other people were also on the route which eventually dropped through a broad valley and down to a windswept bay. Half an hour later a stone memorial and a signing in book marked the endpoint with the cliffs of the Nordkapp away to the east and a choppy, cold looking Norwegian sea stretching in to forever.
On my way back I was fortunate to find a glove I had dropped and got back to the sanctuary of the van before the heavens opened. Back at the Cape I parked up behind a line of much larger vans as last night the howling gale had threatened to rip my bike,cover and rack from the rear door before having a quick wash and retreating to the comforts of the visitor centre for a couple of hours of people watching whilst also online.
Outside the low cloud, heavy prolonged showers and biting wind underlined the realities of this location and again I reflected on how extreme it must be in mid winter.
After an early evening lull the various coaches arrived and discharged their hundreds of passengers who all disappeared in to the exhibitions, cafes and shop - I chatted to a couple from Tasmania on their big OE and was generally bemused by all the activity. Outside the low cloud persisted until magically at the stroke of midnight there was an all too brief appearance of the sun to a round of applause, popping flashguns and general excitement. Within half an hour almost everyone had gone but after returning to the van for my heaviest down jacket I returned  as the clouds cleared more substantially to bathe everything in sunshine - again it amazed me that with no cloud it was simply broad daylight at 1am.
Today the winds were if anything even stronger and after a couple of hours of tea, biscuits and banter with Barry who is on a longish tour after retirement from various services and had a very comfortable van (only the second UK plate seen in a fortnight) I headed back along the exposed road to Honningsvag where the Oceania was berthed.- smaller than the QE but still a mighty ship. A couple of walkers, some cyclists and numerous bikers were heading north and all struggled to stay upright in the atrocious conditions - they all deserved a huge amount of respect but I was at a loss for words when I saw two lads walking and pushing a wheelbarrow containing their kit. The Nordkappelen tunnels and bridges took me back on to mainland Norway and I  am now round in Hammerfest the most northerly town in Norway where tomorrow's highlight could be the chance to be knighted with a walrus's penis bone at the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society - we'll see.
Otherwise inspired by Barry's tips from his journey up from the south I will be hugging the coast heading south, visiting the Lofoten Islands and hopping on and off ferries like buses as I cover the one thousand plus miles down to Oslo - its still nearly 400 miles just to cross back over the Arctic Circle but with 6-7 weeks in hand it will be a gradual process which you can follow here and see recorded in megabytes here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

THE ONLY WAY IS SOUTH

Well the title says it all - sat as I am up here at the Nordkapp - the tip of the island of Mageroya in northern Norway and as far north as you can go by road in Europe. Tomorrow I will walk out the 6 miles or so each way to the true tip of the continent but for now am content to enjoy this remarkable spot. 
My journey from central Sweden mostly followed the Inlandswagen which largely shadows the Inlandsbahn (rails made in Wales boyo!) and passes through vast tracts of birch and pine woods interspersed with clear lakes, rushing rivers and hamlets of brightly painted and immaculately kept wooden cottages and huts. The odd larger town had a shop or two, cafes and a filling station but really life out there was pretty simple. I decided not to take the 'Wilderness Road' that is effectively a loop out to the Norwegian border as I can cover much of it on my way south over the next six weeks so stopped a night in Gallivare (which has a huge ore mining industry) at a winter snow sports hotel that offered camping and the biggest mozzies you ever did see. During the day I had crossed the Arctic Circle and so was now in the land of the midnight sun - a concept I had totally failed to get my head round beforehand.
Basically it did not get dark at all right around the clock - no dusk, no gloom just broad daylight at midnight, one, two or three in the morning - which made sleeping the first night bizarre as I kept wanting to check outside to see if it was still truly daylight : it was.
A brief crossing of part of Finland put me back in the land of the Euro but otherwise there was very little change - political and other boundaries up here are almost irrelevant to a culture where until recently transhumance was a way of life - Chernobyl put perhaps one of the final nails in that coffin but despite the loss of traditional culture life must be far less harsh and enduring for the Sami people as now all the trappings and comforts of western living exist even in the most isolated places. It must be awesome here during the winter as conversely there are many weeks without daylight and with heavy snowfall - every property has huge reserves of firewood and most have skidoos parked under lean to's.
A free camp by a river south of Lakselv on a warm night saw me using my mosquito net to sleep under so I could have the windows open - again the night-long daylight had me astounded but I did sleep through until 10am.
Lakslev on a sleepy Sunday morning was like a ghost town but I found the ATM for some Norwegian currency and headed out to Havoysund after initially following the Porsanger inlet of the Norwegian Sea.
This remote town is cut off for much of the year and each day at set times snow ploughs set off with private vehicles in a convoy with another plough at the rear to try to get through as the road climbs high above the Revsbotn inlet to reach the fishing port. During my visit a huge storm which I had watched drifting in all day from the south arrived and as I hunkered down by the river at Selkopp I was again very appreciative of the van's strengths and comforts and tucked in to some of the tinned and dried food I had brought with me - food in Norway is at least twice the price of the UK : a loaf and a pot of yoghurt setting me back £7!
The weather had settled for a while (enjoy the heatwave you guys back home) as I rejoined the Porsanger inlet before stopping at the site of the old ferry across to Mageroya - the views were reminiscent of Western Scotland - add in a CalMac ferry and it would have been a twin. The dense forest cover way south had slowly given way to smaller trees and now even these were absent apart from low down by the waterline. Amazingly though there were a few small flocks of sheep and probably the most northern cut of silage being taken - having the sea so close keeps this area slightly warmer than inland northern Norway and Sweden but all things are relevant. In fact it hasn't got that cold yet as of course even if it's not actually shining the sun is still there round the clock lifting the temperatures - so up to 20 Celsius if it emerges and no lower than 10 if hidden.
The old ferry has now been replaced by a combination of tunnels and bridges - the Norkapptunnel being the longest structure at just over 4 miles and plunging nearly 700 feet below sea level with a 1:8 gradient down and back out again to get under the deep sea bed. It was an amazing experience and passing the occasional cyclists reminded me of my ride under the Himalayas to Kashmir almost 30 years ago. Most of the traffic was other campervans or caravans, motorcycles and a few cars all heading for or from the one destination and I have to admire the cyclists as the road despite being very well engineered had some long challenging climbs and a very strong westerly had come howling in. The port of Honningsvag was dominated by the new Queen Elizabeth, lying majestically at anchor at the furthest point of a two week cruise up from Southampton, which dwarfed the fishing vessels and even the Hurtigruta vessel also at anchor - one of a fleet of 14 that conspire to provide a full daily service from Kirkenes to Bergen - a journey of a fortnight. I took a wander round town and even saw a big Cat fishing before heading out as the weather closed in. There seemed little point heading out to the Cape in such conditions especially as the several thousand QE customers would be milling around so I took a side detour out to remote Gjesvaer on a road that passed through pure wilderness inhabited only by skittery herds of reindeer.
A cyclist battling the heavy rain and dangerous winds was grateful for the offer of shelter, coffee and biscuits - he was on a 6 week tour from Stockholm and recommended the wild country over to the Russian border for another visit - maybe.
Finally with conditions as bad as ever I decided to stay at Europe's most northerly campsite in Skarsvag - with a hook up as a bonus and welcome hot showers - humbling to reflect that 6 months ago I was staying on Europe's most southerly site prior to crossing to Morocco and exciting to think that with luck I will be there again in another 6 months for a longer return visit. Both sites were the same price - around £16 and it was money well spent here as the most ferocious winds had picked up - it must be unbelievable here in mid winter.
So today under cloudy skies I have finally made it after some 3000 miles from the UK - even the short way back is going to be over 2000 - and it is a very special place. Despite its popularity there is no getting away from the sense of being on the edge of the world - something I last really felt at Slope Point in New Zealand's South Island - and I sensed some of the spirituality felt almost 3 years ago stood on the northern tip of NZ's North Island's Cape Reinga where amazingly there was nothing between there and the North Pole which now lies across a similarly empty span of water. It is a cause for reflection on life's changes since then and as I head south I feel it is time to enter a new chapter  - as ever no idea of the plot or the outcome but no doubt a report will appear here at some stage.
So piccies to enjoy as always are to found by clicking here and my meander south should crop up here. I will linger in this area tomorrow as well in the hope that the cloud cover will break and anyway it has been good to have a break from the driving. The £20 admission fees is steep for a day visit but actually allows you to camp here two nights, there are good facilities over in the centre and with no urgency to any of my plans it will do very nicely - perhaps the biggest dilemma is which tin of Tesco value curry do I open and shall I risk the tinned fried onions? Emails on the pros and cons very welcome!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sweden is BIG - Very BIG!

After seeing the future for VW at the Autostadt I also enjoyed a comprehensive history of their more iconic vehicles in the nearby museum before heading north for a more sobering look in to the past. Bergen Belsen is nowadays a place of peace and tranquility but the austere display building pulls no punches when it comes to describing the atrocities that took place 70 years ago - I also offer no apology for including some disturbing images in the photo link as sadly judging by world events we have learnt very little. All the buildings were eventually burnt down by the Allies to eradicate disease and the site now offers no more than trees and a stillness only interrupted by birdsong and ironically the sound of the heavy artillery of the 7th Armoured Brigade 'The Desert Rats' stationed nearby. This may also have explained the curious number of old camper vans tucked away in nearby woods which I had assumed were people wild camping but turned out to be the business premises of working girls as indicated by the fluffy dashboards and flashing red lights. I shall have to chose my spots carefully.
Luneberg and Lubeck were both crammed full of half timbered houses, mighty churches and impressive castles which I enjoyed en route to Puttgarden where on a whim I decided to get the next ferry over to Denmark. A couple of hours up to Copenhagen and a crossing of the impressive Ostersund Bridge put me in  Malmo in southern Sweden.
After enjoying the sunshine of the Skane coast I decided to head north and was soon passing through wonderful scenery with mixed woodland interspersed with shimmering lakes and dotted with brightly painted wooden houses that were all kept in perfect condition. Diesel prices were similar to the UK but food at least twice the price so the tinned and dried goods I have brought will have to go a fair way. Camp sites seemed about the UK average (which I still think outrageous for one) but by chance I met a retired nurse and her husband who had a list of smaller cheaper sites so was able to photocopy the details for future use.
Karlsborg's huge fortress was full of interest and sat beside a vast lake - rendered obsolete by advances in weaponry the town sized site is now a training academy and public museum
Mariestad had a centre full of old houses and an impressive church and I watched numerous boats traversing the Gotha canal which links Stockholm and Gothenburg saving a lengthy sea voyage.
I then headed in to the Sewdish high country towards the Norwegian border where the long winters attract skiers and skidooers in large numbers. At this time of year it is relatively quiet and I found plenty of small deserted sites with just the occasional hiking group staying. Sweden's highest waterfall freezes solid for 5 months of the year and is a popular ice climb but of course I saw it pouring majestically from the high plateau beyond. The highest campsite in Sweden at Tanandalet once recorded a temperature of -5 Celsius in July 1888 but was pleasantly warm during my stay which of course led to large numbers of flies and mosquitoes which played havoc with a group in tents. Yet again I was grateful for the relative comforts of the van and even found a TV channel in English with Swedish subtitles showing old UK day time telly.
A quick whizz over in to Norway rewarded me with my first sight of reindeer who were ambling around grazing the verges - they were surprisingly compact and looked rather shabby as they were moulting but made for a remarkable sight.
The remote and lonely road (Sweden's highest) over the Flatruet plateau dropped down in to Mittadalen from where a bike ride and walk took me to some Stone Age rock art that was eerily similar to the Aboriginal images in Kakadu, Northern Territory.
Isolated hamlets were dotted around - fishing and hunting are still traditions but the locals also provide wonderful huts and lodges for the visiting winter sports enthusiasts.
Last night I stayed out in the wilds where a young German couple have spent 13 years constructing lodges and a home whilst raising a young family - it was all perfectly presented but so far this year has been quiet and after a poor summer last year I did wonder how they managed - winter images in their brochure looked wonderful but I think the economic downturn in Europe will have a serious effect on their business.
Today has seen a long haul north as I want to maximise my stay in Norway. The 'Inland Road' follows the same route as the 'Inland Railway' and some time tomorrow I expect to cross the Arctic Circle but the Nord Kapp is still a few hundred miles on from there reached by crossing Lappland which straddles the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and even Russia. The van seems content to chug along on the empty roads - 2000 miles covered over the last fortnight - and provides as ever for all my needs. Out here there is very little between the villages but this peaceful campsite has all mod cons - a good job too as wifi is almost non existent elsewhere.
Pictures that may cause you to reflect are here and my whereabouts can be monitored here. It may well be some time before I can post again but who knows.