‘Make the most of yourself, that’s all there is of you’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Somewhere near the Swedish Border, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
This post is going to cover a reasonably brutal 3 days of riding. Day one was starting from the farm on the Swedish border and travelling to the small ferry port of Bodo. Day two is the journey by ferry to the Lofoten Islands and the 12 hour ride back across all of the islands and ending up in Narvik. The third day was the exhausting from Narvik over to Alta Fjord. At the end of these three days I would be in striking distance of Nordkapp. Much of this trek was in torrential rain. Biblical rain. Constant, biblical torrential rain. Rain.
Day one, Swedish border (green square) to Bodo (coast), Day two, ferry to Lofoten then back to Narvik, Day three, Narvik to Alta Fjord
As ever, an early start at the farmhouse and with fuel poured into the bike from jerry cans, there was enough to get to Mo I Rana and the nearest fuel station. Ditching the satnav directions, I took a course that led me over the minor fjords and lakes near to the border – a far more remote and winding route instead of heading back to the main roads. The first few miles were stunning, low sun, great visibility and just me through forests, gravelly roads and long sweeping bends. I came across the first reindeer at about 7am and had to throw the anchor our to stop in time. The reindeer stood in the road, not worried about the engine noise or me for that matter. Reindeer are damned big. It stood there blocking my path, staring at me. I turned off the engine and remember thinking ‘ok, what now’. I bet Ray Mears would have had a plan but alas, I didn’t. The reindeer, lets call her Ethel, stood still. I sat still, put the side stand down and relaxed.
Ethel moved a step closer. Whilst I probably shouldn’t admit this, I did have a moment where I wondered if reindeer charged. Ethel walked in front of me, I took off my glove, took out my phone and grabbed a shot. She walked past and stopped on the other side. Road clear, I started the engine, she turned. I panicked, dropped my glove and phone on the floor and sat there wondering exactly what the hell to do now with my gear several feet below me and underneath the bike. I eventually got off, grabbed my things and hopped back on. Ethel stared and grunted/barked. I nailed the throttle. To this day, I still scan the Discovery Channel for the ‘When Reindeers Attack’, if only to salvage some masculinity from this utterly uncomfortable situation.
When Reindeers Attack, iPhone
The next few hours of riding to Mo I Rana were just sublime. Cold but no rain and constantly beautiful scenery. I was really remote and for 2 hours I didn’t see a soul. Just reindeer, small fjords and lakes, forests and low mountains/hills. The roads were wonderful, with long sweeping bends but all covered in grit and the occasional hole. I made good use of the throttle – this is where bikes like the GS excel – the tyres were gripping like glue and I put them to good use. In fact, its the first time I edged the tyre wall. Quite a few stops in that time, so many unspoilt views to both see and shoot and just the utter, utter tranquility of it all. Alone.
Riding the edge of several fjords, through dense forests and with the constant chatter of gravel spitting from the tyres, I was saddened to see signs for the major roads. With the obligatory petrol station fill up complete, a cheap coffee (cheap – relative of course) and the rain began to fall. Zipped up, visor down, about an hour to go to the arctic circle. With slower roads and an increase in traffic, progress was much slower and as I rounded a mountain range, I began to wonder if I had perhaps missed the arctic circle ‘visitor’ centre. It was cold, wet and just as I thought about pulling over to throw a mid layer on, the road opened out and there ahead, in the middle of a flat landscape was the centre.
It was an amazingly strange experience to pull into the car park. I felt…well, I can’t even describe what I felt. An odd mix of sadness, happiness, elation, deflation. I stood by the bike for a good 10 minutes before I even took a step towards the buildings and marker. In some ways I knew this was an achievement. Not many get to the arctic circle. Fewer still on the convoluted route I had taken. In some ways, I guess I wanted to savour the moment. In other ways, I probably didn’t want to be here because it meant I was almost at journeys end. I wandered aimlessly for a while, bought a sticker for the panniers, had someone take my photo by the globe and then I felt my lip quiver. My eyes strained and even though I tried my damndest not to, I started to cry. The last time I had cried was after the horrendous winds approaching the Pyrenees when I saw the sun set over the mountains.
I spent about an hour there, viewing the memorials to those who had died building the roads and walking amongst the stone cairns that had been placed nearby. If I’m honest, I spent most of that time just trying to compose myself – my head was all over the place, trying to take in the fact I was in the Arctic. Many men and particularly bikers will read this and consider me a wuss. I could offer fake platitudes and offer an explanation based on achieving ambitions and overcoming the fears and barriers we have within. But I won’t. I composed myself, chatted up two women, drank 40 pints and then wheelied down the road at 160mph to celebrate. 🙂
Cairns, The Arctic Circle, iPhone
The trip to Bodo from the Arctic Circle was wet and cold. Several hours of riding in torrential rain with the temperature now down to 4 degrees and I was glad to see the signs for the place I was staying. Oddly, the rain stopped and the temperature rose when I arrived with the sun creating a pleasant evening glow. I did little that evening – showered, ate some tuna and crashed out to the steady drip, drip, drip of my gear on the bathroom floor.
Up at 5, I dropped the key in the box, checked the bike over, wiggled my bum on the seat to try and avoid my boxers becoming sodden from the water, shivered as I felt the soaking jacket suck the warmth out of my body, hit the ignition and 5 minutes later I was at the ferry terminal. You don’t expect to see many people at a ferry terminal at 5am but there were a few dozen cars. I pulled into the lane marked for the Lofoten Islands – Moskenes – turned off the ignition and started to get off the bike. The cars were loading on to the ferry. I was tired and confused, was I late? I checked my phone, nope, I was early, ferry wasn’t due until 6.
The figure in the distance was waving at me, frantically telling me to come forward. I hopped on, rode up to her and stopped with a bump – a little achey and a little heavy on the rear brake! I said ‘Moskenes’, she said ‘yes, yes’ and waved me forward. I really, really, really wasn’t convinced as I rode on to the ferry. Everyone was already off the loading deck and the deckhands were waving at me to get the bike strapped down and to hurry. I threw the strap over the seat like I had done a dozen times before on this trip as they stood there urging me onwards. I heard the engines of the ferry begin to fire. They then came over, took 2 other straps and tied down the front suspension, fully compressing them and putting chocks on both wheels. I obviously looked half asleep and confused. They just said ‘very rough’. I staggered up the stairs to the deck, slamming into the walls several times and grateful for the shoulder armour in my jacket. The boat was already moving. Moving in all directions.
Standing up can only be likened to drinking 2 bottles of vodka, spinning yourself around a 100 times and then trying to stand on one leg. I sat down, the boat went up and then crashed down and boy was it shifting. I don’t think I have been on such a fast ferry. I never felt sick though and decided that shoving my ear plugs in, staring at the wall and listening to a bit of Hawkwind would do the trick. I nodded off until the tannoy crackled into life and as I looked around, there was hardly anyone around – in a panic, I swirled around in my seat and saw that people were queuing by the stairs. Then I saw the coastline. Completely disoriented, mentally fatigued and dazed, I pulled out my phone and saw the time – 7.30am. The boat should not have arrived until 10am. My jaw dropped as the realisation overtook me that I was on the wrong ferry.
I had no idea where I had ended up. I jumped up, grabbed my helmet, ran to the door and down to the hold where the cars were already switching their engines on. I started to unstrap the bike with my brain working at a million miles an hour. There was an earlier ferry I had seen on the timetable – that went to a different island. I got the bike unstrapped, was the last person off the boat and pulled up by the ramp. I asked the deckhand where we were. ‘Moskenes’ he replied, giving me a quizzical look. Turns out I had caught the 2am sailing or some such but it had been delayed because of engine issues and had to make up time to get back on the track for the rest of the day. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, pulled into the car park and allowed myself to wake up properly.
Mountains near Alta Fjord, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Fish. All you can smell on the Lofoten islands is fish. It borders on the edge of being nauseous , never quite gets there but serves as a constant reminder of the industry that keep these island alive. The islands are almost pre-historic with huge singular mountains climbing from the edges of the sea, draped in coats of lush green and crowned with grey wispy hair from the low clouds. I’d barely moved away from the ferry when the rain started. It went from a few drops to torrential within a mile. It would stay that way for the next ten hours as I hopped from island to island, passing lakes, skirting the sea, crossing numerous bridges and holding my breath on occasion as I passed the hoop like structures of the fish farms.
I would say that I experienced the Lofoten rather than seeing them. The rain was truly horrendous, my gear was overloaded, water was streaming down my visor which had long since become covered in fog – the anti-mist insert had no hope of coping with his amount of water. It’s times like these on a trip when two things happen. Firstly, you take the rough with the smooth – I’d been blessed with glorious sunrises and sunsets and had a dose of luck with the passes in the Pyrenees opening just as I arrived. I saw glimpses of the Lofoten and it seemed magical but I need to return and do it properly – always the danger of just having one day where it is poop or bust. The second is that you have to dig deep. Like the winds in the Belchite and the fires in Sicily, it was going to be a tough ride. In those conditions with little visibility and 10 hours to ride, you cannot afford to switch off.
Anyone who has ridden in those conditions for a lengthy period will understand. You sing, you plan your stops and you keep talking to yourself (both out loud and in your head) about the road ahead. You savour those brief respites at the odd garage where you grab a coffee, hold it under your nose and shuffle uncomfortably with a wet backside, staring out of the tear stained glass at the dark skies and pounding rain. It sounds awful but actually….I enjoy it. Challenges like this make a trip like this. We remember the beauty, the people and the sunrises but we never forget the harder days, the wind, the rain and the cold and tiredness. For me, that’s where we feel truly alive.
Lightshow over the Alta Fjord, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
With the occasional overtake which was also occasionally a little hair raising (not that I have any but you get the idea) there is little else to say. Apart from one thing. Cyclist tourers on the Lofoten – no matter how tough it was for me, it was far tougher for them. On a single bike, completely exposed and making slow progress, my heart went out to them. Then you realise, days like this also make the trip for them too.
It was late when I pulled into the hotel in Narvik. An altercation with the local parking police who wouldn’t even let me stop for 2 seconds to run in and drop off my bags was not what I wanted at the end of the day. I made it in though, showered, hung up the sodden dripping gear and headed out to find something decent to eat – I was so so so so hungry. Tuna and Haribo just weren’t going to cut it. Amazingly, I found a chinese takeaway in the next street and the prices were almost equivalent to the UK. I had to ask twice if I was reading the prices correctly! I ordered a full meal, snuck it into the hotel and sat on the bed devouring everything. As I looked up, in the mirror I saw a man with a face covered in sweet and sour sauce, dark eyes and a contented look. Sleep took me away shortly after.
Alta Fjord, iPhone
The rain continued through the night but had softened as I ate breakfast. Another long day today and I was already aching – some respite from the rain would be welcome. I got my wish in part, the day was showery so my gear never dried but the temperature was colder again with the bike reading it as about 4 degrees. Wet gear in the cold meant I threw on extra layers to conserve warmth.
I’d planned to stop today just North of the Alta Fjord, that would leave me in striking stance of Nordkapp. I’d reasoned that I could reach Nordkapp but I would be shattered so why ruin that final day? A cheap deal at a hotel on the Fjord gave me a target, I packed up, suited up and headed out of Narvik.
To this day, I still cannot work out the geography. As you leave Nrvik, you climb and then reach this huge valley – it is very deep and it must be ten miles long. Stunning lush greens and jagged hillsides as you follow an almost straight road through what is almost prehistoric like the Lofoten. If dinosaurs still lived they would live there (for our American cousins, obviously Loch Ness still has a dinosaur so please continue to visit and buy t-shirts). At the end of the valley, the rain began again and 2 bikes, with Austrian plates, went screaming past me. I really do mean screaming, I was doing 40 in the 40, they must have been doing 80 plus. A few minutes later, the heavens opened, I plodded on through some small towns and passed the bikers – they’d stopped to put on waterproof over suits. Just after this point, the road opens up and there is a huge straight rise to the top of a large hill. It’s the kind of road that you just want to nail the throttle on and go for it. I almost did but then reminded myself of the fact I’d stuck to the limits all trip long given the draconian fines for speeding. I plodded up there, the rain battering into my gear – it was so hard that I could feel it despite having 3 layers on. At the brow of the hill, I saw the guy crouched down behind a tree. I’d just been tagged with a speed gun, my eyes flashed down, phew, dead on the limit. As the road levelled out, I could see a patrol car and 2 motorbike cops waiting in the tree-line. It was an amazing position for them, you had no chance of seeing them until it was far too late.
With people flashing their lights and a few hand signals to other bikers coming the opposite way, I pulled in at a cafe after about 5 miles. The rain was falling in sheets, the coffee was over-strong and I was dripping. My helmet liner was soaked through as were my under layers. I stayed there for half an hour, the Austrian bikers never came past. Presumably trying to pay a huge fine and maybe having their bikes impounded. All the talk at the cafe was of the speed trap with every single person who came in telling everyone else about it.
Light show on the Alta Fjord, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
I was tired, cold, wet and achey and I still had 6 hours to go. Digging deep again, I got back on the bike, shuffled, sighed, squeezed my head into the wet liner of the helmet and shivered as the water squeezed out and ran down my back. Glancing skywards and twisting the throttle, I told myself to just be safe, it will be what it will be. It’s odd writing that phrase, I picked it up from a very unbalanced woman who has the unenviable position of being one of the worst human beings I have ever met. Believe me, I’ve met a few.
Beyond the cafe was just a huge flat plateau that stretched to the horizon. With a backdrop of dark skies over a foreground of low lying scrub, this place was barren. If I was in any doubt as to whether I was in the Arctic, this put paid to it. I couldn’t work out how I had climbed so much and now it was just flat to the horizon…still can’t work it out. Just a single road through this place, wide roads, occasional overtakes of camper vans but the rain stopped. I lifted my visor, glad of the cold air on my face and began to stretch my legs out from the bike to try and dry them off. Then the orange light came on – fuel warning. 48 miles till empty and I had no idea if that was a full 48 miles or even less before I would be out. I ploughed on watching with grim inevitability the drop of the mileage from 48 to 44 to 38 to 30 to 24.
I pulled over, weighing up options. There were no turn offs on this road, the horizon was a long way off and there was nothing at all up here. Just the road and the scrub. Selecting garages on the satnav showed the nearest was 40 miles away. Oops. I cursed myself, I should have filled up last night and now I was going to be stuck. I selected the garage on the display and it showed a turn off in 12 miles. When that arrived, I was in a flow of traffic, doing 45 miles an hour in a 55 which is not good for fuel economy. I picked my point, went past the camper van holding everyone up and ducked back in front. As I did the last mirror check when pulling in I saw the police car overtaking cars behind the camper van. The camper van flashed me and beeped, I held my breath expecting sirens at any point as I wasn’t sure if I’d broken the limit.
I saw the turn off, ignored it out of gut feel and descended rapidly through a gorge where the rad hit a T junction, I turned right and there it was – a rest area with 2 self service fuel pumps. Fuel pumps with a long queue, looks like I wasn’t the only one struggling for fuel! The camper van pulled in behind me as did the police. I saw the camper van couple pointing at me while talking to the police officer, he looked over and continued to speak to them. I was putting my gloves back on as he walked towards me and thought, oh well I had good reason. As he approached, I looked up, he smiled, cocked his head, said hello and then smiled. I breathed a sigh of relief deep inside. The smile though was not just a friendly smile, it was a knowing smile.
Alta Fjord, you have to ride around all of that, iPhone
With 100 miles to go, I had to skirt around the edge of several fjords, following them South and then around their apex and then heading back North. As you look across the Fjord you mentally work out it’s probably 3 miles across but you’re going to have to travel 40 miles to get to that point. Stunning ride though, always by the water, always with mountains by you and for good measure, the rain started again. With a ferry to take across one fjord, I got a few precious moments of rest and shelter, chatting to a Norwegian guy on an R1. He was not hanging about when the ferry docked, I guess he knows the roads and where to slow down.
It was a long final portion of the journey, passing mountains that looked like the spine of the backs of dinosaurs, watching the light dance on the water and the peaks as it momentarily escaped the prison of the dark skies and fighting a constant battle against exhaustion. Alta Fjord is not like Geiranger or the others. It’s rugged, primordial, barren and open. I really liked that rawness. Despite the occasional plug of traffic, it still felt remote. As I think back now, it was remote, there is little reason for anyone to be that far North unless they are going to Nordkapp. The local population is, as you would expect, very sparse.
It took an eternity to find the B+B. A lovely room, a warm room and a heater in the bathroom to dry my clothes. I spent the evening watching the storm move across the Fjord and it was a magical sight. Rays of light illuminating the water and a mix of greys, blacks and bright whites that swirled and were ever changing. No laser show could ever get close to matching that display. Incredible, magical, ancient.
As I checked my gear through and inspected the bike , I looked over the fjord, paused and realised that tomorrow I would reach Nordkapp. I remember smiling as the rain started again before packing away my tools and ducking back into the warmth of the room.