Thanks to having a Scandinavian mum (or perhaps more accurately, thanks to her having me) I'd heard stories of the far North, the polar night and the midnight sun when I was still knee-high to a mosquito; going there was one of the first dreams I ever had.
The magical line on the globe, The Arctic Circle, beyond which the sun will not set for months in the summer, has held a mystical significance for more than 3 decades. So when an insurance payout finally turned up, 3 years after it should have done, it took all of 3 minutes to decide what to do with the windfall. It was about time I got my arse into gear and crossed off another item on my list of 'things to do before I die'.
I had plenty of time to plan it since the cheque turned up in February and the sun wasn't due to rise up north for a month or so yet anyway. I decided to go for the Summer Solstice and take about 4 weeks.
There are various ways up to the Arctic Circle in Europe but I decided to do the whole trip in Norway: The main reason for this being that I would only have to carry one map. I wanted to keep the mileage sane so I got out the World Atlas, did some careful calculations with my thumb and decided I was only looking at about 2,000 miles there and back. Given that I had a month to play with, the plan was to bimble gently North and marvel at the scenery on a route that took in as many national parks and as few towns as possible. As it turned out I was wide of the mark on two counts. 1) I underestimated the mileage by 3,000 miles but oh, what sublime miles they were... and 2) 'bimbling' went right out the window.
Four months after receiving the insurance payout, I sat at Newcastle docks in the rain, popping seasick pills, waiting to board the ferry for Kristiansand. There were about 40 other bikers behind me so I felt terrifically relaxed about being the first Muppet to bin it on the wet metal gangway. Miraculously we made it on board without mishap and I set about wondering what to do with all the long orange straps and the incomprehensible ratchet-things that were supposed to make my bike secure. In the end I gave up on the ratchet-things and tied knots instead, hoping the soft panniers would limit any damage sustained from falling over once out on the high seas. Resolving not to uncross my fingers till we were on Norwegian soil I staggered upstairs to find cabin 6703. The reason I was staggering was that the seasickness pills were kicking in and they give you instant sea-legs. However, we hadn't left harbour yet so I was walking round on legs that seemed to be trying to deal with a force 10 gale, while on a completely stationary boat. As passengers gave me a wide-berth and sceptical looks I thought, "Just you wait! Give it an hour and you'll all be lurching around like drunk spaniels and I'll be the one making ambulatory sense."
The crossing was just rough enough to assure complete vindication on this score and by 7 o'clock that evening the ship was strangely quiet but for the hiss of spray breaking over the bows and strangled retching from most of the cabins. Those pills I was on were so good that even the inescapable rising smell of puke didn't dampen the bounce in my step as I went out on deck for the most exciting cigarette I think I've ever smoked. While I was aware that fags are terribly bad for you, it had never occurred to me that I might actually get swept overboard while smoking one.
Arriving in Norway the next morning, I was delighted to find the bike still upright, though looking a little lost amongst the chrome-covered cruisers that the Swedes are apparently so fond of. We rolled back onto dry land, which wasn't dry at all in fact, and set about looking for the E18 which was, according to the map, the motorway to Oslo.
Well, I don't know where these cartographers grew up but this wasn't like any motorway I'd ever seen. First of all, it was single carriageway with a fascinating variety of yellow lines painted down the middle. Then there was the fact that it swooped and soared like your average dream road, galloping beside tumbling waterfalls and through 45-degree forests. Then there was the issue of slowing down for the villages, watching out for wandering sheep and Elk, and the occasional pedestrian crossing. I realised that I was going to have to do some serious re-calibration as far as my map reading went.
Every now and then, after a dozen glorious miles of endless S-bends, a sign would appear warning me of up-coming S-bends. I soon learnt that as far as Norwegian highway engineers are concerned, a bend has got to be pretty damn thrilling before it gets a sign. Usefully, they would also let you know the optimum speed to do these bends at and I found their judgment to be spot-on every time. If the sign said 60, then 60 it was.
Having chucked a left well before Oslo and headed up various classifications of road towards Hardangervidda National Park, the only discernible difference I could find between M-ways and anything else was the fact that M-ways almost always have two lanes, and the road surface is the least fun.
There was no traffic to speak of and to be brutally honest I was whooping it up, singing along to ACDC until I remembered I was supposed to be a tourist and taking in the views rather than acting like a heat-seeking missile with a thing for vanishing points...
I gave myself a good talking to and put some Carly Simon on instead, but it was hopeless. I realised I was going to have to make a decision: Enjoy the scenery or the roads - it was impossible to do both. I decided I'd look at the scenery on the way back and for the next two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed 2500 miles of the most breathtaking roads imaginable. I also learnt to respect the Norwegian road builders and designers in a way that comes close to worship.
For a start, the fact that half the roads were there at all was amazing - because nothing else was. The physical landscape of Norway is neither flat nor straight - ever - and the road has to fit in with this general scheme of things. We, the bike and I, toiled joyously up climbs that went on for 50 miles, then at close on 2000m we'd fly out onto the high plateau where visibility was measured in hundreds of miles, and a sinuous ribbon of smooth blacktop beckoned you all the way to the horizon.
Then there'd be a long wild descent back down to the fjords, followed by a relaxed hour or so wiggling your way around the rugged coastline.
There were snow packs 8ft high beside the road and it was June. There were glaciers, and hundreds of frothing tumbling torrents cascading, but the road was invariably well drained and smooth. Not only are the summits high, the slopes are steep. One 7 km stretch involved 27 hairpins in an effort to keep the incline do-able.
Every now and then though, the gradient would defeat even these road-building genii and they'd have to resort to dynamiting tunnels straight through the great granite mountains. Oh boy, those tunnels were cold. The longest one we rode through was over 6 kilometres long and by the time we burst back into the sunlight I'd forgotten what it was like to be warm.
After a week of this I began to realise that, although I wasn't actually standing gazing at the scenery, I was aware of it in a much more physical way. The road faithfully traced the contours of this deeply beautiful country and I was faithful to the road. I felt as though I were running my hands over the landscape and intimate with it; much more so than I would have been if I'd been looking at it from a tour bus.
The E6 was stunning. Breath taking. Glorious. Over Dovrefjell National park it took us through a landscape where Musk ox live, the skies are vast and bike riders can't help but sing their heart out in their helmets. I spotted a Musk ox way off to the East and parked up to watch it. It was drinking at a pool maybe half a mile away, and I got out my camera to use as an impromptu telescope. After a good quarter of an hour living all my David Attenborough dreams, I decided it was probably a big rock after all but it didn't take anything away from the experience. It could have been a musk ox, and that's the point.
Just North of Trondheim I experienced a really hi-tech stretch of Norwegian motorway. This bit of road had a solid central reservation and everything. Only one lane each way, mind you, but a proper bit of concrete down the middle.
Gradually, the days settled into a rhythm. Ride hundreds of miles as hard as possible, get 'bike-stroke' at some point in the early evening, find a nice place to camp, then sit and look at the view for 3 hours in state close to transcendental. This is a rhythm I could boogie to for a very long time I think.
I crossed the Arctic Circle and threw my arms up like I'd just won the GP at Donington. Rocking along to ZZ Top we rode North through Saltfjellet National Park and the landscape opened out and out until it was hard to believe I wasn't looking at the edge of the world. Wide open spaces, the biggest sky you ever saw and always, somewhere, wandering aimlessly across the incredible wilderness, a road. It was midsummer; the sun wasn't going to set until I dipped south of that magical line again. I could ride 24 hours a day in broad daylight if I wanted to.
I headed for the Lofoten Islands, which lie off the West coast and have been voted the most picturesque place in Norway. Well, that's got to be worth seeing; given Norway is clearly the most picturesque place in the world. I stayed in Reine for a few days and climbed a small mountain to try and get my head round this breathtaking place. Impossibly sharp glacial peaks rising more or less vertical from the sea, turquoise lagoons, infinite varieties of flowers, mosses, lichens, and every now and then, the strong whiff of fish from the thousands of cod drying in the sun. Here I stood transfixed for 4 hours and watched the sun not setting. This is quite an experience. Some very fundamental beliefs get rocked. The one about night following day, for instance.
Enjoying a coffee down by the harbour in Reine one morning I was joined by a 90 year-old retired pilot. The pilot had forgotten most of his English, and my Norwegian is nearly as good as my Lebanese, but we spent a happy hour swapping life histories and philosophies. He did an impression of each of the animals he had on his little farm and told me about his simple life and how it meant you lived a long time in perfect health. He wanted to know why I was alone so I tried to explain that you meet more people when you travel alone, and also how nice it is not have someone going 'yak, yak, yak' in your ear the whole time. 'Yak, yak, yak' it appears, is an internationally recognised expression - I thought he was going to do himself an injury laughing.
Now that I'd crossed the Arctic Circle, there was one more goal left on my itinerary. Nordkapp at 71 plus degrees north is billed as the most Northern point in Europe so I'd decided that I might as well go to the end of the road.
I left Lofoten by the grace of the E10, which runs the whole length of the island chain and brings the motoring tourist back to the mainland, suffering from an interesting mix of sun-fever and sensory overload. The light was extraordinary - it didn't even pretend to get dark. After about 5 in the afternoon it went into suspended animation. The light level remained the same, until 4 am when it started to get lighter again. As a result I'd only had a couple of hours sleep in the last two days but felt as fresh as I can ever remember feeling. High on sunshine and traveling through a landscape of ethereal beauty; there were times on this ride that I realised I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
I liked the atmosphere further north. You got the impression that a policeman might pass this way once every couple of years or so, just to catch up with friends.
Issues like burglary, violent crime, fraud and other stuff common to western life seemed absurdly incongruous up here, where you need to be able to depend on your neighbour. The winters are long and hard, resources are scarce and expensive and the summer is so joyous that it would be foolish to waste any of its precious golden light doing bad things to each other. Hanging out one Friday night at the Shell station, as you do when you need a decent cup of coffee at 3 am, I watched the local youth doing their thing. In London, you just don't hang around at this time of night. Here though I was taken back to films of the 50's where young people were happy and carefree, boisterous and innocent. The 12 to 16 year olds blatted about all night on 50cc scooters in open-face helmets, which was really quite macho given the clouds of newborn mossies everywhere. Their bike skills were phenomenal.
The further North I got, the more Norwegians I found, parked up in some quiet place, with friends or alone, in the early hours of the morning just watching the sun not do anything. It's strangely compulsive viewing.After about half ten the quality of the light starts to change: It's raw and fresh; filling the huge vastness from end to distant end. The midnight sun is as strange and unfamiliar as the sun that shines on another planet. Its light bounces off everything and the curve of its rebound is golden. The air glows. It's hard to tear yourself away from this incandescence and think about mundane things like getting some sleep.
I met a local biker who showed me some of his favourite places. With a flask of coffee and a packet of biscuits we parked-up near the Alta Hydro-electric Dam and watched another day gradually turn into, er, day. We considered the road we'd just ridden to get there. I'd been doing the hallelujah chorus about his country's inspired road-builders, but to my astonishment, he shook his head.
"There are too many 'twisties' (new English word passing into Norwegian vernacular) - they put 'twisties' where they don't need them."
He pointed at the wandering dazed-looking ribbon of tarmac that had brought us up here.
"They could have built it there to there in a straight line; no mountains, no rivers, and its flat, so why is the road going round corners?"
I know nothing about highway engineering, but I had to agree, now you came to look at it, he had a point.
Halfway through the biscuits we suddenly realised why: Obviously, it is so beautiful up here that the road-building teams are in no hurry to leave. They drag out the contract, for as long as possible, constructing lovely highway poetry while the sun shines.
Reindeer bells far away, a lark high above, warm sun and snow-clear air... I wonder if I'd be any good at building roads...
I rode across the Stokkdalen plateau at 11 am one day at the start of my 3rd all-nighter on the trot and things were definitely starting to get a bit weird. The bike felt very odd and I got spooked so I pulled over to take a break. As soon as I stopped I realised what the matter was. There was a terrific side-wind blowing, but I'd had no idea because nothing up here moved. No trees to wave about or even grasses taller than a few centimetres: Just granite and lichen and mica and mosses. Amazing that a landscape so simple could be so enchanting.
I arrived at Nordkapp early afternoon in the exhausted dream-like state that comes from riding lots of extraordinary miles on no sleep at all. However, unlike every guidebook out there I've got to say that the tourist centre was well worth it - especially since I got in for free; something to do with celebrating my arrival with the throttle and the ticket guy being a biker. I spent hours there, listening to the reactions of other tourists as they stood at the edge and contemplated the end of the world.
A loudly spoken English man moaned that "There's not much to it and it's bloody impossible to photograph!" while his 3 daughters craned over the rail and exclaimed that "It's just like heaven!"
And it was.
A sea fog had crept in since I'd arrived, sneaking into the deep wrinkles and crevices in the coastline. At 309m high, Nordkapp stood above the fog. The sun shone, blazing on us from a hot blue sky, and we looked out over a view that I've only ever seen from an aeroplane before. If you could see in long-range, the next thing to look at would be the North Pole.
There was a beautiful chapel where you could say hi to your favourite deity. The view outside was stirring; no doubt about it, and I'll bet this little Arctic chapel sees a surprising amount of action.
There were also some quiet corners where a shattered biker could stretch out for a 20 min nap. The best of these was the auditorium that had been blasted directly out of the cliff face and was basically raw rock on 3 sides. The 4th side of the great space was window, and some gentle classical music was playing discreetly. As tacky tourist traps go, Nordkapp visitors centre was pretty classy.
At 8 that evening I left Nordkapp, with a souvenir sticker to say 'I've been there' in my tank bag and the huge grin that you get after making a dream come true. At midnight I was back up on Stokkdalen heading south for the first time in weeks. The wind had dropped; the sun shone warmly and in the crystal light there was no sense of distance, only space. I parked up and tried to take photographs but it was useless - it was too big to fit in a frame. Putting the camera away I realised that a picture might be worth a thousand words, but a memory was worth a thousand pictures.
Back on the bike, more at one with my machine than I've been since I quit despatching, we sped across the Northlands feeling like an ant crawling imperceptibly across the surface of the planet. This is an oddly wonderful way to feel.
The ride back down south was supposed to be a simple relaxed affair. My body however had very different plans. It had clearly decided that I was way past the age when I could take 72 hours without sleep and not suffer for it. I rode down to Mo I Rana hospital one miserable Sunday morning, where the surgeon checked me out and said we were probably looking at an appendectomy. They shot me full of morphine (there is a God), and went off to run some tests. Meanwhile, the fact that my bike and a months worth of luggage was sitting at the A and E entrance was worrying me. I'd been delirious when I got here, certainly not up to sensible parking anyway and I asked if I could put it somewhere less obstructive.
They told me they'd put her in the Ambulance Shed where everything would stay dry, but I wasn't allowed to ride on account of the morphine. However, having ascertained that there was no one here with the slightest bit of bike experience I gently insisted that I ride the bike the 400m to the Garage on the grounds that if anyone was going to drop her, I'd rather it was me. And this is how I came to be riding around the complex, in the rain, wearing a hospital gown and jeans with a nurse trotting along beside me holding up my drip bag. Another great reason to travel alone; you get to have the most ridiculous adventures. The next couple of thousand miles were essentially spent going home and could have been a bit of an anticlimax if it wasn't for the fact that the beauty and splendour of the landscape never gave out for a second.
In our over-populated industrial nation you'd travel a long way to find one of the 'top ten biking roads in Britain' billed in the glossies, and if you were lucky it would be 70 miles of heavily policed scenery. Here though, top biking roads went on for 5,000 un-interrupted miles, I'd seen 3 policemen in all that time and two of them were asleep.
Norway is an undiscovered paradise for Gatso-weary, motorway-fatigued, traffic-frustrated English Bikers. Norway is, frankly, a very good reason to get your bike licence in the first place.
Next time I come here though, I'll start as far North as a boat will take me; forgoing the fjords and the gentle southern lands. I'll get back on the Arctic Highway and make my way beyond the magical line at 66.5 degrees where our small planet chimes with the rest of the universe in a slightly different way.
Norway is a wholly beautiful place, but the Northern lands had really rocked my world.
The article was written by TRD regular Lois Fast-Lane, and first appeared in issues 100 & 101 (Jan & Feb 2006)